Monthly Archives: December 2020

A Happy/Blessed New Year! What does it mean for me?

In my native Dutch language we either wish people a “happy” or a “blessed” new year. Many of my compatriots may not be aware of the origin of this difference: Those with a Protestant heritage prefer to use the term “happy”, while people with a Roman Catholic background tend to opt for “blessed.” I wished my language had a word that blends these two concepts: human happiness and divine blessing.

During the last week of the year countless good wishes are exchanged. They come in oral form as we meet people while maintaining the required social distance, or through snail mail, e-mail and the various social media, and as we Skype, Zoom, Facetime or use other techniques to get in touch with one another. Has all this new-year-wishing become a rather empty tradition? Or is it a meaningful interaction that we must not lose. I, for one, attach real significance to it. In my last blog of the year I want to briefly share what a happy and blessed New Year means for me:

1.It is easy to take for granted that I have a roof over my head, a bed to sleep in, and my “daily bread” on the table. However, just a few days ago I watched a TV-program about the dozens of homeless people in a town near where we live. Men and women told their sad story. In many cases, through no direct fault of their own, they no longer had a roof over their head, nor enough income to buy food. I realized that it would be impossible for me to feel happy and blessed without having these basic necessities of life.

2.Good heath is a blessing and a close pendant of happiness. Most of us sense this in the present Covid-19 crisis more keenly than ever before. But for me personally this has, in particular, been brought home to me by a constant stream of bad news from family and friends, and many others whom we know well, about cancers that have just been diagnosed, brain tumors that have been detected, and various serious chronic diseases and addictions, apart from broken hips and other disabilities. As I see, and feel, advanced age slowly creeping up on me, my daily dose of pills has gone up and doctors’ visits have become more frequent. To remain reasonably healthy in 2021 would certainly be a precious blessing and a source of happiness.

3.Two bloody world wars put their stamp on the twentieth century. Last year in different places in Europe it was celebrated how World War II ended 75 years ago. International organizations, as the UN, NATO and the European Union, may have their weaknesses, but they have done much to ensure peace, at least in the part of the world where I live. Elsewhere in the world wars continue to destroy the lives of millions. Reports of violence in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, various places in Africa, etc., remind me how peace is a prerequisite for a happy and blessed existence.

4.Just a week ago my wife Aafje and I celebrated our 56th wedding anniversary (because of Covid in a much more restrained manner than in previous years). As 2021 begins we have just started our 57th year of life together. We got married in our early twenties–so you can do the arithmetic. Our happiness will be closely linked to the blessing of remaining together for, hopefully, many years to come. Each time when we celebrate that we have been happily married for another year, we are reminded that many of our relatives and friends have experienced how their partner was taken away from them and how difficult it is for them to rebuild their lives with a certain degree of happiness. A happy and blessed new year is a year together with the one who is our life’s companion.

5.A happy new year will be a year in which we can enjoy the love nd companionship of family and friends. It is something that becomes more meaningful as the years go by. And as time passes it becomes more urgent to do all we can to restore relationships that have become strained or disrupted. It will give added happiness when such efforts are successful.

6.Financial security is definitely also an important aspect of happiness. It may feel as something we have earned through hard work, without always sufficiently realizing how much this is due to divine blessings. As 2021 begins I trust the monthly pension payments from state and church will keep coming. I sincerely hope I will not face any dramatic unexpected expenses, and that we will also be able and willing to share some of what we have with others. Sometimes I dream of a sudden windfall—enabling me to go with my wife on a cruise to the Arctic waters, or to put a serious amount of money in the bank accounts of our children—but a sense of gratitude for all that we have, and the comfortable way we can live, soon overrules those fantasies.

7.Being retired has many advantages. One is that you have much more freedom than before n choosing what projects to work on. For me living a happy and fulfilled life does not equal an end to all projects. I get a great deal of satisfaction from preaching and lecturing, and from writing. 2020 put severe restrictions in what I could do. Most appointments were either cancelled, postponed or transferred to Zoom. Happiness in 2021 would include the disappearance of the Covid-restrictions and a return to a “normal” active-retirement-kind-of-existence.

8.Many people are perfectly happy if they never travel outside of a 50-mile radius from their home. I have never belonged to that tribe. I thoroughly enjoy traveling, seeing new places and revisiting places that hold pleasant memories. Apart from an aborted trip to Southern California in February of this past year, we used a temporary lull in the Covid-restrictions for a ten-day trip to Denmark. That was all our foreign travel in 2020! It would increase our happiness if we could soon resume our travel, and go see our grandchildren in Sweden, pay another visit to the USA, visit family in Canada and friends in Australia, and, of course, take some long-planned trips to places in Europe.

9.An important aspect of a happy and blessed life is enjoyment of culture. One concert, with an audience of just thirty people, a few weeks ago, was the only live-concert we were able to go to in 2020. We wonder what 2021 will bring us in terms of museum visits and concerts. Will our path cross again with Herbert Blomstedt as he conducts one of his annual concerts in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw? Of course, there are lots of other ways of enjoying beautiful music and, whatever happens with Covid-19—I will have books! (And Amazon now also has a branch in the Netherlands!)

10.Finally, 2021 can become a truly blessed year only if I continue my pilgrimage of faith—ever finding new depth and inspiration, as, following in the footsteps of the eleventh-century St. Anselm of Canterbury, my “faith seeks further understanding,” helps me to find inner strength when facing the challenges that will undoubtedly also come in the new year, and allows me to support other fellow-travelers along the road of life. Moreover, it would greatly enhance my happiness if I would see my local and global Adventist faith community “grow in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” and enact some of the changes which I—together with many others—have long been hoping for.

This is what a happy and blessed new year means for me. I wish you the same happiness and divine blessing as you transfer and adapt these words to your own life situation at the beginning of 2021.

I am glad we have a Christmas tree

As a child I enjoyed the Christmas tree in the Christian-Reformed Church in our village, where the annual Christmas festivities of our elementary school were held, and the Christmas tree in the Dutch Reformed Church in the center of the village, where we celebrated Christmas with the children of the Sunday school. We were the only seventh-day adventists in the village. My parents had chosen to enroll me, my brother and my sisters in the Christian elementary school and not in the local public elementary school. And because my grandfather was Dutch Reformed and lived with us, we had a link with the Dutch Reformed Church and its Sunday school. You could say that, for Adventists in the middle of the last century, our family was quite ecumenical. But a Christmas tree in our home was taboo.

As children, we could not understand why there was no Christmas tree in our home. All other children in our class had a Christmas tree at home. My mother explained to us why having a Christmas tree was wrong. Having a Christmas tree was something pagan. And that is why Adventists did not have a Christmas tree in their church or at home. We were not satisfied with that explanation, and our continuing protests were successful over time. A few pine branches made their entrance and, I think, I was about twelve or thirteen years old when for the first time we had a small Christmas tree in the corner of the room, with a few cheap balls and some hideous garlands, and with a dozen dangerous real-life candles, as lights.

Other seventh-day adventists in the Netherlands also gradually began to have Christmas trees. (To the amazement of many it was discovered that most Adventists in the United States did not object to a Christmas tree. So, why should we?) In the Netherlands the Christmas tree also gradually made its entrance in the Christmas services in the churches. In many places this did not happen without a good deal of argument. When I had my internship as a minister in Amsterdam, a Christmas tree in the church caused quite a commotion. Our Adventist church building was rented to a Baptist congregation on Sundays. These tenants had been kind enough to leave their beautiful Christmas tree in the church after their own Christmas celebration, so that their Adventist brothers and sisters could also enjoy it during their Sabbath worship. But that was not appreciated by everyone. A few of the younger church members decided, before the service began, to dump the tree, with its decorations and all, in the canal in front of the church building.

In many countries the traditional objections to the pagan tree remained. When I visited Kuwait at the beginning of 2001, on behalf of the Trans-European Division, this once again became very clear to me. On Friday evening a special service was held in which the members of the congregation (mostly migrant workers from Pakistan and India) could ask questions that I would try to answer. After all, it did not happen so often that someone from a higher church organization came to visit them. Almost all questions during the Q and A time were about the Christmas tree. Apparently, a lot of trouble had arisen about this issue shortly before. It kept bothering me for days that our small Adventist congregation in this 99.9 percent Muslim country apparently saw having or not having a Christmas tree as their biggest problem.

I am writing this blog in our living room, at a distance of about three meters from a beautiful Christmas tree that has been decorated with great care. I do enjoy our tree. Yes, I know that having a Christmas tree goes back to a Germanic (pagan) custom that was introduced into the Christian Church in the Middle Ages. But this dubious origin plays absolutely no role anymore. Nor is it a problem for me that drinking hot chocolate is something that originated with the Aztecs. For me, the Christmas tree is now a dual symbol. For several weeks, the lights of the tree remind me in a special way of “the Light of this world” which, as one of the carols tells us, “has made its saving appearance”. But for me, the Christmas tree is also an annual confirmation of the hopeful fact that changes in the church are possible (even though we often have to wait a long time for them) and that legalistic customs and man-made rules can disappear at some point in time.

Actually, for me, the Christmas tree has become a sign of freedom. The freedom that Christ has brought us, which also frees us from human hassle and makes us happy and grateful for the pleasant things that brighten our life in the darkest weeks of the year.

In the year that the pandemic ended . . .

As I wanted to start work on a new sermon, I suddenly thought of a week opening for the students and staff of the Theological Seminary of Andrews University in the fall of 1965. That provided me with inspiration for a new sermon.

At the time, I was studying for my master’s degree at our Adventist University in the United States. Every Monday we were expected to attend a short service, with usually one of the lecturers in charge. The sermonette of that particular morning in the fall of 1965 was given by Professor Sakae Kubo, who, among other courses, taught the class Introduction to the New Testament. He was one of my favorite teachers and ever since I have held him in high esteem. He is now in his mid-nineties, but from time to time I am still in contact with him.

That morning Kubo had chosen the first few verses of Isaiah 6 as the basis for his talk. That chapter is about the calling of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah later writes about this experience with these words: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” Kubo first explained that the year of the king’s death, the year 740/738 B.C., was a year of great crisis. Uzziah had reigned for no less than 32 years. He had been able to resist the steadly growing power of Assyria. With the death of the king a dangerous power vacuum arose, just when Tiglath-Pileser, the ruler of Assyria, was engaged in a new military campaign towards the West. In that year of crisis, Isaiah was called by God to become his prophetic mouthpiece. This calling was accompanied by a vision in which God revealed Himself to the new prophet as a powerful, holy and gracious God. Kubo used this as a parallel for our calling as theological students and future ministers. He pointed out that there were all kinds of dangerous things going on in the world around us, and that in many ways our planet was facing a constant crisis. In order to be able to work for God under those circumstances, we too needed a vision of the greatness and graciousness of our God.

Isaiah would never forget in which year God called him: It was the year of the death of King Uzziah! For most people there are also particular years that stand out–years of events and experiences that we will never forget. Like many people, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on that fateful day when President John Kennedy was assassinated. And I’ll never forget that on 11 September, 2001, I was driving from Schiphol Airport to Dalfsen (where a major conference for ministers was about to begin) and heard via my car radio of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. And I think people around the world will continue to remember the year 2020 as the Year of the Corona virus. Ten or twenty or even more years from now, a whole generation will still refer to things that happened in the Year of Corona!

A lot of people around the world will remember the Corona Year above all as the year in which a loved one died. It is for my wife and me the year in which my wife’s twin sister died. We will not easily forget that this happened just before the Corona virus erupted. Others will remember this year as the year in which a life partner, a child, a good friend, a dear colleague, left them forever. In our country, tens of thousands of people will remember the Corona Year as the year in which people around them fell seriously ill, and in which at least ten thousand people who were close to them succumbed to the virus.

In the year that King Uzzia died . . .the prophet Isaiah had a vision of God. He saw God’s greatness and grace. The fact that the Lord sat on an exalted throne is a symbolic indication of his omnipotence and majesty. And the temple symbolism is a reference to God’s forgiving grace. Isaiah needed that vision in the time of crisis in which he was embarking on his prophetic ministry.

The Year in which the Corona pandemic broke out is now almost over. Now that we are about to enter the year in which we fervently hope to regain control of the pandemic, we need, more than ever, a vision of the almighty and merciful God to fulfill our mission in the world and in the church, in our family and among other loved ones.

Let us hope and pray that at the end of 2021 we will be able to say: In the year that we were freed from the Corona pandemic, we saw a vision of the Almighty and Merciful God who, in particular in times of crisis, gives us the strength we need.


I have been to Prague only once. While working in the office of the Trans-European Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I regularly visited Budapest, Zagreb, Belgrade, Warsaw and several other capitals of Central and Eastern Europe. These were in the region of Europe for which our office was responsible, but Prague is in the Czech Republic, and the Adventist Church in that country is part of the region that is supervised from Berne (Switzerland). Too bad, because I would have liked to visit Prague from time to time. The only time I was in Prague was about fifty years ago. At that time I worked at Oud Zandbergen (near Utrecht), where a theological school of the Dutch Adventist Church was located. With a group of students I went to Berlin and Prague on an educational trip. It was quite an undertaking, because the iron curtain hung like a ruthless separation across Europe and it took the major preparations to get the stamps that Western citizens needed in their passport to travel to the East. I will not easily forget that one of the students lost his passport and had to stay behind in Prague and couldn’t get back by train to the Netherlands until more than a week later. But above all, I remember the baroque splendor of the city of Prague and the sites with memories of Johannes Hus, a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.

There is a lot I would like to see in Prague, but I would make a speial effort to get an appointment with Tomás Halík, a Catholic priest and professor of theology and sociology. I already mentioned him in my blog of last week as an example of someone who brought great sacrifices for his faith in the days of communism. In the past week I finished reading the almost 400 pages of his autobiography.

I must say that the book touched me profoundly. Maybe one of the reasons is that much in my life shows a parallel with Halík’s life history. His life, just like mine, has always been a mix of many different activities, partly of an academic, but partly also of a pastoral and of an administrative nature. And we certainly also have our wanderlust in common. After the disappearance of communism, Halík took every opportunity to go to countries where he had never been before, and I always took every opportunity to travel. And both Halík and I love preaching, lecturing and writing books. But I realize only too well that I cannot stand in the shadow of this genial spirit and that his books have an unprecedented depth. Yes, should I in the future have the opportunity to visit Prague, I would try to meet this inspiring man in person and thank him for the way his life story and his other books have inspired me.

What particularly struck me in Halik’s autobiography was his honest description of the deep mental depression he experienced at one point in time, as a result of an episode in which a number of friends and colleagues turned against him. It then took him some time to get back on his feet and to climb out of his crisis of faith. Looking back, he saw the crisis as a positive experience, as a period in which he went through a maturation that enriched his life. Many will recognize that (as I do myself). We can emerge stronger from difficult phases in our personal and/or professional lives.

Tomás Halík has written a number of books that have also been translated into other languages. A few years ago I read his book entitled Patience with God. I highly recommend it. Every year Halík withdraws for a whole month into a monastery in Rhineland, where for a few weeks he leads the life of a hermit and writes all day long. This autobiography was also created in such a “hermit month”. Maybe I should try that too!

Faithfulness under persecution

It was around 1997 that I visited the Minister of Religious Affairs of Lithuania, together with Dr. Bert B. Beach. At that time Dr. Beach was responsible in the headquarters office of the Adventist Church for the relations of our church with the governments in the countries where the church had a presence. I was at that time responsible for this portfolio in the 36 countries that belonged to the Trans-European Division. I don’t remember the name of this government official in Lithuania, but I do remember that it was a rather difficult conversation. The country had gained its independence from the Soviet bloc a few years earlier, and many aspects of the church-state relationships still had to be settled. At that time the number of Adventists in Lithuania was still very limited and the church was not yet officially recognized.

The purpose of our visit was to ask the minister to grant our church official recognition. He said that the new laws forced him to grant such recognition, but that he would not do so wholeheartedly. We asked him why he as reticent. He then told us that he was a Roman Catholic believer and that, because of his faith, he had spent quite a few years in a prison camp. His faith was very important to him. But he had heard repeatedly from Adventists that he belonged to “Babylon” and was not a real Christian. We offered our sincere apologies and emphasized that this was not the official view of the Adventist Church.

I was reminded of this experience when reading the recently published autobiography of Tomás Halík, a Czech Catholic priest. Several of his previous books were also published in Dutch. In his autobiography he tells his readers how he became a Christian, studied psychology and theology and became a priest. For many years he had another job and could only exercise his priesthood in the deepest secret. With great danger for his life he played an important role in the underground church during the Soviet occupation. His story of how he served his church for years, despite heavy persecution, and remained faithful to his faith is impressive. From my Adventist point of view his theology may not be correct on a number of points, but that does not detract from the greatest possible respect I have for him as a fellow Christian.

During the Soviet period many Adventists also endured intense difficulties because of their faith. Dr. Daniel Heinz, head of the archives for the history of Adventism at the Adventist Friedensau University in Germany, has for years been investigating the fate of oppressed and persecuted Adventist church members in the former Soviet Union. With a team of Russian-speaking graduate students, he tries to identify the Adventist victims of the Gulag by comparing the old membership lists of local Soviet congregations throughout the Sovjet Union with data in the archives that are now accessible. The research shows that more than 4,000 Adventists lost their lives during that time due to repression and persecution. This is about one third of the church members in the former Soviet Union.

We should not trivialize the theological differences between Christians of various persuasions. However, these differences fade away when we think of what Christians with different theological beliefs have suffered for their faith. I am sure that is also how God sees this.