Monthly Archives: September 2019

Spiritual burn-out

A few weeks ago I listened in my car to an interview with the Belgian psychologist Mrs Elke Geraerts. One of the topics was how we might use our brains more effectively and what we might do to avoid a burn-out. During the discussion a book was mentioned that she had written about this issue. It happens from time to time that, while listening to such a program, I decide that I am going to order the book that was mentioned, but that, upon arriving home, I no longer remember the name of the author nor the exact title of the book. This time that was not the case. I ordered the book, which was delivered within 48 hours. In the meantime I have read most of the book. I was a little disappointed, as I had hoped that the author would have dealt with some things in a bit more depth! Nonetheless, I do not regret buying the books as it has sections that I find quite interesting. And it certainly also gave me more insight in some aspects of burn-out.

Mrs Geraerts believes that we can increase our mental flexibility by maintaining a good mental discipline. In this connections she mentions, among other things, the expectation of a ‘postponed reward’ and the importance of a strong intrinsic motivation. It is part of human nature that we want to be rewarded for our efforts, not just in the short term but also in the longer term. Our work must not only provide for our immediate needs, but must also give us something worthwhile to look forward to in the future. At the same time we must also be driven by ‘intrinsic motivation’, i.e. the sense that what we do is worth doing, and that we find satisfaction in doing it.

Reading the book Mentaal Kapitaal (Lannoo, 21015) by Elke Geraerts I began wondering whether her arguments might also apply to our inner life of faith. Is there something like a spiritual burn-out? Might we perhaps compare the situation of those who are totally frustrated with their faith and their church—because they are left with far too many unanswered questions and have been disappointed too many times—with the state of those who are physically and mentally ‘burned’ out? Has for many people their faith become a collection of empty words, for which they have no further use, and are people taking leave of the church because they no longer see any relevancy in what is being done and said in the church? Could this, in many cases, be the cause of a deep spiritual depression? Could it be that very often this ‘postposed reward’ has ceased to have any appeal and that the intrinsic motivation to remain in the church has disappeared? With a serious spiritual burn-out as its consequence?

I the past year I have given very serious thought to this issue of a ‘postponed reward’, that Christian believers have been told to look forward to. I have just written a book about death, resurrection and eternal life. The English language edition has now been published by the Stanborough Press in the UK, while a Dutch edition will soon follow suit. Writing about these themes forced me to ask myself some very penetrating questions. Is my spiritual life still motivated by the expectation of life after this life? How can I be sure that this new world the Bible speaks about will not in the end prove to be a mere pie in the sky? Being forced to give serious thought to these and related questions has clarified several things for me and has helped me greatly to continue looking for that ‘postponed reward’.

However, the point of intrinsic motivation should not be forgotten. Are we eager to hold on to our faith and to stay with our faith community, because it gives added value to our present life? For faith does not only have to do with future eternal life, but also with our present existence. This reminds me of the words of Jesus Christ in John 10:10, where he tells his followers that he is the Source of true life and that he wants to give us this life in all its abundance. Faith, in some miraculous way, has a tremendous added value for our life in the here and now. Always keeping that in mind will help us to avoid a spiritual burn-out.

Conspiracy thinking

Last week two young Dutch ‘you-tubers’ were arrested in the United States after having entered the terrain of the ultra-secret US Airforce base Area 51. They were subsequently condemned to pay a fine of 4560 dollars. Ties Granzier and Govert Sweep were planning to take pictures of the base. When they were arrested they were in the possession of camera’s, a laptop and a drone. They will most likely have to leave the USA without these goodies.

Area 51 has lately received a lot of publicity A Facebook campaign was launched (and later aborted), asking people to ‘storm’ this secret Airforce base, north of Las Vegas, on September 20. The idea behind this was to investigate the persistent stories about aliens who are supposedly being kept prisoner in this facility, after their UFO or other spacecraft crashed in the vicinity. All kinds of conspiracy theories have developed around the activities of these aliens. According to a 2017 report, almost twenty percent of all Americans claim to have seen a UFO, and almost half of them believe that aliens regularly visit our earth. To my surprise I read a few days ago in a Dutch newspaper that 5.4 percent of all Dutch people are also convinced that the US government is hiding aliens somewhere in the Nevada desert.

Conspiracy theories are as ubiquitous as they are dangerous. Many of them suggest that dangerous forces are secretly at work at all levels of our society. They pose an enormous threat and must, therefore, be exposed by whatever means that may require. These conspiracy theories can be a real threat to our democratic societies. But such theories take on a very special form when they are given a religious content. And we must accept the unfortunate fact that religious conspiracy theories seem to thrive in many religious groups. Sad to say, a lot of Seventh-day Adventists are also attracted to them. Some right-wing speakers travel the world with their sensational messages and in many places find eager audiences. These ‘brethren’, many affirm, dare to speak the truth, whereas most pastors no longer want to talk about the signs of the times! Their dvd’s find their way across the globe and, more often than not, their content is uncritically absorbed and accepted as full truth. The Catholics—more specifically the Pope and the Jesuits—and various secret societies are usually the most prominent culprits.

The approach of the conspiracy theorists in many respects resembles that of best-selling author Dan Brown. The recipe seems to be: You take a few undisputed facts; you then add a large number of unknown facts that are extracted from obscure sources that are difficult to check, and which are at most only partly true; and you mix all this until you have a powerful concoction for the sensation-hungry consumer. It seems to enhance the attractiveness of the resulting product when the speaker assures his audience that the official church, with its ecumenical tendencies, neglects to proclaim these precious truths. And no wonder, for the church has been infiltrated by the very same forces of darkness that the speaker has come to expose!

The recipe is as successful as it is dangerous. It results in fear. It polarizes churches. It cultivates suspicion of church leadership. It fuels that prejudice in the mind of many around us that Adventism is, after all, a sub-Christian sect. But, most serious of all: it eclipses the good news of the message of the gospel by irresponsible innuendos and unbridled speculation, and by an unhealthy sensationalism. A fascination with conspiracies and wild stories about what is happening behind the scenes and is aimed at destroying the Adventist Church, can easily become so overwhelming that one’s faith is no longer a trust relationship with God, but rather a proud sense of satisfaction with knowing things that are hidden to most people around them.

Does the Adventist Church need a new abortion statement?

Euthanasia remains a hotly disputed topic in the Netherlands. Sadly, elsewhere in the world the Dutch policy and practice is often not correctly understood. In particular in the United States, it is often suggested that ending up in a Dutch hospital may be rather risky. If you are over sixty and must have surgery, chances are that the doctors feel you have lived long enough! In actual fact, the rules for euthanasia are quite restrictive—as anyone in the Netherlands, who has been close to a case of euthanasia, will know. It is true that there are some in Dutch society (as in other countries), who would like to relax some of these rules. However, there is currently a court case in which a doctor was tried for murder because she had assisted an elderly demented lady to die. This person had earlier signed a statement indicating her wish to die, if she were to suffer of serious dementia. In spite of the fact that other medical specialists were involved and the family confirmed the death wish of the lady in question, the doctor had to face a murder charge. The argument was that she should not have gone ahead with the euthanasia, since the Dutch law requires that, immediately prior to the intervention, the doctor must ask the person whether it is still his/her wish to die. This was no longer possible in this particular case and, therefore it was decided that the doctor should face the courts, so that more clarity would be achieved of how the law must be interpreted. Today, the court decided that the charge should be dropped, because it found that the doctor had in fact carefully abided by all existing rules.

Abortion is today much less of an issue in the Netherlands than euthanasia. Of course, there are those who find the rules for abortion far too liberal, but it is far less of a burning issue among Dutch Christians than it is in the United States. In America we see an enormous divide between ‘pro-lifers’ and those who want to allow abortion under certain circumstances. In the polarized atmosphere in the US, groups on both sides often describe the standpoint of their opponents in grossly unfair terms. And, unfortunately, the abortion issue has become highly politicized. For a major segment of American evangelicals Donald Trump’s ‘pro-life’ stance is a solid reason to support him, in spite of all his ethically highly dubious words and actions.

In this polarized context the Seventh-day Adventist Church has decided that the time has come to prepare a new official statement about abortion. There is a rather balanced document that was voted by the Autumn Council in 1992, which was published as a ‘guideline’ rather than as official statement. It has served the church well. It made clear that life is precious and that it is God’s gift for which we are responsible. But it also recognized situations in which aborting this incipient life may be a defensible option and that, ultimately, it must be an individual decision. The church may provide guidelines, but should not prescribe what an individual should do. It is clear that there are some (many?) in the church who feel this document is not enough ‘pro-life’. It supposedly leaves too much space for individuals, but also for Adventist hospitals. In addition, there are voices from outside the church that wonder why Adventists are not more outspoken as ‘pro-lifers.’

In my view we should, at least for the time being, be content with the document that we have. Chances are that a new statement will restrict the freedom of the individual and make it more difficult for Adventist hospitals to provide assistance to women in need, for whom abortion is a defensible option. What worries me also is that the plan to publish a statement on abortion seems to a large extent driven by the American political situation. It once again shows how ‘American’ our church continues to be in so many ways. For a church that proudly calls itself a ‘world church’, this is highly unfortunate.

Am I truly happy?

From time to time I ask myself the question: ‘Am I truly happy?’ For a Dutchman this should be an easy question. According to the World Happiness Report of 2019 (published by a department of the United Nations), which provides a ranking of 156 countries, the Netherlands takes fifth place among the happiest countries in the world (after Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland). In this report happiness is measured by looking at such factors as material well-being, social cohesion, life expectancy and freedom of choice.

So, I should count myself lucky to have been born in the Netherlands. Our prime-minister consistently emphasizes that we live in a marvelous country and that we should take good care of it. That may be the case, but, as I wrote in my previous blog, this marvelous country has some 38,000 homeless people. That is as many people as the number of inhabitants of a fair-sized provincial town. According to recent data the number of people that receive a monthly social security check is still just over 800,000 (almost 4,5% of the population). In a major speech our minister of finances stated last week that even many middle-income families are only one defect washing machine away from major financial disarray. [I sometimes wonder how I should interpret such data, when I see an explosive increase on the number of restaurants, and notice how more and more fellow-Dutchmen can afford two or three vacations per year.]

But, let’s go back to the question with which I began this blog. Am I a happy person? The answer depends one how I define happiness. In any case, I am not ‘perfectly’ happy in the sense that I do not have any problems; that I can fulfil all my material desires; that all my social relationships function optimally; that I am just as energetic as I was twenty years ago; that all my projects are one hundred percent successful and that there is never a day when, for some reason or another, I feel rather depressed.

However, I must admit that the world in which I live is not really a happy place. During the past few weeks I have been confronted several times with the finality of life and with the fact that there is an awful lot of sickness all around me. Moreover, there is major political unrest in the world. Examples abound. Just to mention a few the United Kingdom, Hongkong, Jemen and the Middle East (even though we tend to forget about that part of the world, since there has seldom been a time without serious trouble). Hurricane Dorian has left of wide swath of devastation on the Bahamas and (as I write these lines), continues to threaten parts of the coast of the Southeastern United States. No, seen from this perspective, our world does not appear to be very happy.

Nonetheless, when asked whether I am a happy person, I can respond positively. I have now been ‘happily’ married for almost 55 years. We have two good children and have been blessed with two nice grandkids. I still enjoy reasonably good health. I can look back on an interesting career with much variation. I continue to be involved with various meaningful projects. And my Christian faith provides me with a solid basis of meaning.

As we seek to define ‘happiness’, we should perhaps first of all let us be inspired by the beatitudes which Christ spoke as part of his ‘sermon on the Mount’. This helps us to discover that true ‘happiness’ is directly linked to contentment, gratitude, acceptance, having our focus on what is good and true. Happiness is found in trusting that we have our place on God’s world. Happiness, therefore, is first and foremost a hopeful confidence that, even when at times life is tough and brings us a lot of unhappiness, we are in the care of a loving power that lifts us beyond ourselves and the things that may trouble us. Those who do not believe this will have to be content with a very superficial kind of happiness—a bubble that can burst at any time.