Yearly Archives: 2021

The last week of 2021

The last week of the year 2021 has begun–slotted between the Christmas weekend and the turn of the year. Unfortunately, due to a new Corona wave, the year ends in the Netherlands in a total lockdown. Following our tradition of going out for a nice meal on December 22, when we have our wedding anniversary (now the 57th), was impossible.

All in all, despite the limitations, we were able to enjoy the Christmas weekend. On Friday evening we followed the liturgy that the Christmas committee of our local Adventist Church had prepared, and brought in a small Christmas parcel to all members’ homes. Now that we could not meet physically, this was a very resourceful initiative. Without breaking the corona rules, we were able to accept the invitation of friends for a Christmas dinner. It was very tasty and very enjoyable. So good to have friends! For the Christmas service on Christmas Day, we chose to virtually attend the service in the beautiful Coventry Cathedral in the British city of Coventry. And on Boxing Day we enjoyed the ecumenical service in the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam–and in particular the choir of this church.

The last week of the year is also the time of all kinds of other, some rather banal, traditions. Since about twenty years, during this week the two thousand most popular songs are played one after the other on one of the radio stations. Newspapers and television columns review the most important events of the year, both the disasters and the happy events. Reviews are made of the most read books of the year and the most popular and least popular politicians, and of course the sportswoman and sportsman of the year, are chosen. Many of these things largely pass me by.

Like most people, these days I think mainly about what has happened in my own life in the past year. Both my wife Aafje and I have been spared the Covid-19 misery. It did come close when a number of people in our apartment building tested positive and also became quite ill. A week ago we had our booster shot, but we still remain quite cautious. In the past year we both had our cataract surgeries. Aafje hurt her foot and was not mobile for a few weeks, but all in all we are thankful that we made it through the year 2021 in reasonably good health. Except for a week in Denmark and a week in Germany, we were unable to travel, but we found much fulfillment in our creative activities. A special highlight was that in April I received a royal decoration. The certificate has a place of honor on the wall next to my desk.

Actually, I am not so good in looking back at what lies behind me, but mainly wonder what lies ahead. What will 2022 bring us? Will it be another year of Corona restrictions and will we need to get our fourth jab within a few months? In the coming year, I hope to reach the age of eighty. That sounds pretty old. In the past week, I twice visited people in a nursing home for the elderly. Naturally, I saw a lot of weak and invalid people there. Involuntarily, one thinks: Is that my future too? But that thought does not dominate.

On Friday night, during a program of the Dutch television organization Max, Jan Terlouw told an inspiring story that he had written. I admire this man enormously. He had an academic education in mathematics and physics, but his career eventually moved in the direction of politics. He also became well known as an author of novels and children’s books. He is a man with ideals and still expresses them in numerous talk shows. Jan Terlouw is now ninety years old, but he is still very active and creative, and his storytelling is still as sparkling as ever. When I see people like Jan Terlouw it gives me courage and I think: I hope that the good Lord will also continue to give me the health, energy and idealism to do positive things that have meaning for many people. It is with this hope that in a few days’ time I will enter 2022.

So, what about Red Bull . . .?

I very occasionally buy a can of (sugar-free) Red Bull when I am on the road and need a little boost. My experience is that it is indeed quite effective to help you through a temporary energy dip. The business of the company behind this drink, which has been on the market since 1987, is booming. It is one of the main sponsors of Max Verstappen, the Dutch, Belgian-born and Monaco-based, Formula 1 driver, who became world champion last Sunday on the Abu Dhabi circuit.

(This is not about my opinion regarding this branch of sport. I don’t like extremely dangerous sports and certainly not this form of autosport, in which about a dozen men follow each other for a year to over twenty different circuits, spread around the globe, to compete during a large number of daredevil laps).

Max Verstappen receives a base annual salary of over 21 million euros from Red Bull. I do not know how many millions the company pays for the car and for the entire circus around Max. There are also other sponsors. But Red Bull, as the main sponsor, will have been extremely pleased with the enormous publicity that the company has received, thanks to “our” Max, in the past year, and especially last weekend. In any case, a significant proportion of all Dutch citizens saw the car with the words “Red Bull” flash by on their TV screens over and over again for days on end.

I am, you guessed it, not part of the hysterical mob that followed the battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen from minute to minute. The Red Bull promotion struck me for a very different reason. One of my writing projects for the next few months is a chapter in a book about the role of “fake news” and of conspiracy theories in our society, and specifically among Seventh-day Adventists. As part of this, I am in the process of reading a stack of books, and one of them happened to report extensively on Red Bull. Soon after the introduction of this energy drink, rumors began to circulate that it contained a number of dubious ingredients, with rather bizarre implications. It was, for example, widely reported that 500 million (!) bull calves are needed annually to provide sufficient semen for the production of the various variants of this enormously popular drink. One of the many components of Red Bull is taurine, an amino acid also found in meat, fish and dairy products. But the taurine (the word is derived from the Latin word taurus = bull) in Red Bull is not obtained from the testicles of bulls but is entirely synthetic. However, there are still millions of people who do not believe this! The Red Bull drink is also surrounded by a series of other “fake news” stories. For example, the inspectors of the Austrian health authorities are said to have released it for consumption after having been bribed with large sums of money.

The Red Bull story is just one of many bizarre conspiracy theories and examples of “fake news” that I have come across in my reading over the past few weeks. Since the Corona era began, there have been legions of strange theories about the origins of the pandemic and about the evil forces that are bent on making us all sick. It never ceases to amaze me how many people are willing to believe in such stories.

I’ve read enough about Red Bull in the last few days to convince me that the drink may be effective, but that it’s not exactly healthy, especially with frequent use. I’ll keep that in the mind when I think I am ready for a little “boost.”

Accept one another

As soon as I post my (almost) weekly blog online, I make mention of it on my Facebook page. There are usually very few direct comments on my blog, but from time to time there are quite a few on Facebook. That was the case this past week as well. I could have suspected that the Corona vaccination topic would evoke strong feelings from some readers. But once again I was surprised how controversial the subject has become, and how difficult it is to discuss it reasonably objectively.

The list of things we do well to avoid when talking with others–including family, friends, and close acquaintances–is steadily expanding. It varies from country to country, but I do have the impression that the lists of controversial subjects are becoming more and more similar internationally. In recent years I have experienced several times that in some countries it is better not to ask about the political persuasion of people and not to touch upon a series of sensitive political issues, if you do not want to endanger good relationships. Unfortunately, I see that this is increasingly also the case in the Netherlands. As soon as “right-wing” oriented people suspect that you are “left-wing,” and vice versa, a pleasant conversation tends to be no longer possible. In the past, most Dutch people made no secret of their political alliance and were open about how they voted in an election. Today the political landscape has become much more complex, and it is often not advisable to tell others which party one prefers, especially when it deviates significantly from the “middle”.

Among the other topics on the list of risky topics of conversation is sexual orientation. Unfortunately, if you are not part of the heterosexual population, it is in many circles still advisable to remain silent about your orientation. But the conversation about sexual orientation in general can also very easily (especially in a conservative Christian milieu), cause an extremely unpleasant atmosphere.

Likewise, conversations about faith and theological topics are often far from safe. “Liberals” and “conservatives”–or whatever label one uses–may still address each other as “brothers” and “sisters,” but often manifest very little affection in their acrimonious confrontations via social media. A “normal” conversation between people at different ends of the theological spectrum is in many cases also impossible. Listening to each other, and possibly also wanting to learn something from each other, has become a rather rare phenomenon.

And now there is the polarization regarding vaccination. For some, the availability of vaccines is a blessing for which they thank God. They bemoan the fact that there are so many people who don’t want to be vaccinated, and trust that the government will do everything possible to persuade (or even force) people to get the shots, in order to prevent the pandemic from causing even more havoc. Others regard the vaccines as devilish instruments, which are promoted by dangerous organizations, from which Christians can only expect further mischief. Any meaningful conversation between representatives of the different viewpoints has become virtually impossible. The responses to my blog of last week confirmed this once again. No one is able to convince the other of the wrongness of his/her position.

The apostle Paul gave an urgent recommendation two thousand years ago that continues to be applicable to us. We read in Romans 15:7″ “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order or to bring praise to God.” Perhaps in our context we should translate that as: “Let’s keep talking together, even when we disagree with each other. But Gods wants us to keep the peace between us. Consider how Christ has always accepted us despite all the imperfect traits we have and the questionable opinions we hold!

I don’t find it easy to put this into practice. I have strong opinions (also on the others points I mentioned above, which so often cause a lot of disagreement) and I often have great difficulty in accepting the point of view of others. But the least all of us should try to do, is to respect each other and strive for peace. (In any case my next few blogs will not deal with Covid or with vaccins.)

Needed: 150 billion euro

From the start, Covid-19 was a global issue. We soon learned that a pandemic does not stop at national borders, certainly not in an age when every day millions of people travel by air. New variants of the virus need only days to spread to distant places. When a few days ago, two planes from South-Africa brought some 600 passengers to Schiphol airport, fear for the omicron variant prompted the Dutch authorities to have all incoming passenger extra tested. 61 of them tested positive, of whom 13 brought the new variant with them.

It becomes clearer every day that we will not bring the pandemic to a halt by restrictions in our own country or our region of the world, however necessary they may be. Even through the debate about the longer-term effectiveness of the vaccines continues, there is considerable consensus among experts that our best hope of mastering the virus is world-wide vaccination. In a number of the “rich” countries of the world the vaccination rate is encouraging and it has been shown that vaccinated people—although they may now need a “booster” shot—are much less likely to become seriously ill or to die from Covid than those who, for whatever reason, have not (yet) been vaccinated. The vaccination rate in most of the poorer countries of the world is lagging far behind that of the more affluent nations. In a few African countries to date no one has yet received the anti-Covid jab. The international UN-sponsored COVAX organization continues to lament the slow response of most richer countries in providing the funding to assist the 92 nations to combat the pandemic.

Giving repeated thought in the past few days to this problem, I began to wonder why it is such a problem to pay for those vaccines for every person in poorer parts of the world. Of course, I have no claim to any expertise in this domain, but simple arithmetic brought me to some tentative conclusions. Please follow me:

The first question is, of course, what a global vaccination project would cost. Let’s assume the population in the poorer countries amounts to 2 billion people. This means that (including a booster shot) the project would require 6 billion doses. This very week, the Belgian under-minister of health gave information about the cost of the various vaccines. The prize varies from € 1,78 for Astra-Zeneca to € 18,00 for Moderna, with BioNtech/Pfizer in between at € 12,00. So, let’s settle on a medium price of € 10 per shot. Thus, the bill for the vaccines for these 2 billion people would about to 60 billion euro.

Last week I heard an expert say in a talk-program on TV that the actual costs for a large-scale vaccination program in a developing country would be far more than just the costs of the vaccines. It also involves the cost of needles and all other materials that are required. These countries would need help in setting up the necessary organization, and probably a large number of people to administer the program. The expert suggested that there would probably have to be at least an additional amount equal to the costs of the vaccines. Ergo, our budget would rise to at least 120 billion euro. Realizing that international projects always go over budget, I suggest that we add another 30 billion, making a total of 150 billion euro.

An amount of this size frightens us all and, understandably, national governments prioritize national challenges. However, it is in the direct interest of their own populations to help halt the virus everywhere in the world. And, seen from a global perspective, funding such a project, even to the tune of 150 billion euros, seems perfectly doable.

This morning I read in my newspaper that a global lock down—which is a real risk if we fail to act adequately—would amount to a monthly economic loss of 375 billion euro.
And, compare this 150 billion euro to the global military spending which presently stands at over 2 trillion dollars, with the USA with 778 billion dollar as the biggest spender!

If 150 billion dollars is split between the richest countries, the bill for the Netherlands would perhaps be 5 billion euro. But, let’s be generous, and say that the Netherlands could be responsible for 10 billion euro. Spread over 2 years it would be an annual contribution of 5 billion euro, which happens to be the same amount as the Dutch people spent last week on extra shopping during Black Friday (the stupid craze that we have imported from America!). And 5 billion is only about 1,5 percent of the Dutch national annual budget.

I may have overlooked many factors—as I already stated, I have no expertise in this area. It seems to me, however, that it would be very much in the interest of the “richer” countries to support the COVAX program in a much bigger way than they presently do. But, there is another, perhaps even more important, reason to enable poorer countries to vaccinate their populations. Human beings ought to manifest solidarity with their fellow human beings,in particular in times of serious crisis. And, therefore, we must do all we can to ensure that people everywhere can be protected as best as possible against the current pandemic.

For Christians, it should not require an extra push to convince them that global solidarity is a basic principle of the Christian religion. Religious leaders should, therefore, be on the forefront in urging national and international civic leaders to make a global vaccination program possible. And some denominations may even be able to contribute in a concrete way in providing personnel and even some funding. The Adventist Church with its worldwide health system may not be able to assist with a large dollar amount (although a world-wide income of more than 2 billion dollars should perhaps leave some petty cash), but can contribute a lot of expertise and make a significant number of medical personnel available. It would be great to see that happen.

PS. It should be mentioned that ADRA is already active in many countries in relief efforts in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Responsible preaching

It is Thursday. My sermon for the coming Sabbath is ready. In fact, I put the finishing touch to it already a few days ago. I consistently avoid having to work on my sermon at the very last moment. It is something I find far too stressful. I like preaching and have always considered it as a privilege, but also as a great responsibility. Communicating the Word requires faith and commitment, but also knowledge and communicative skills. Sermons have influence, often far beyond the expectations of the preacher. This influence is supposed to be positive. The sermon must be inspiring and uplifting—-helping the listeners to face the challenges of another week.

But sermons can also have a negative impact and even lead the listeners astray. This week two examples of such negative influence caught my attention—one in my own denomination (the Adventist Church) and one in another faith community in the Netherlands.

An Adventist pastor in the New York Conference got into trouble after he told his congregation that a wife is the property of her husband and that the only kind of rape that is justified is that of a wife by her husband. The reaction of the various Adventist church bodies in the USA was as quick as it was required. Someone who feels he can include this horrible (even criminal) idea in his sermon can no longer be a pastor and must no longer have access to the pulpit.

A Dutch minister who is employed by an evangelical organization suddenly became a well-known personality. He preached a sermon entitled “The Great Reset,” a term he borrowed from the World Economic Forum which promotes a new world order. In less than two weeks the sermon has been listened to by some 800.000 people. The sermon was based on Revelation 13—which is about the beast, the image of the beast and the mark of the beast. There was no reference to the powers and phenomena that are usually mentioned in Adventist interpretations of this chapter of the Bible. The Dutch pastor warned his audience that they should keep their eyes wide open and be aware of what is going on in the world. There are, he says, dubious powers operating that will take away our freedom. Recent events in the Corona-era have shown how easily this may happen. The sermon received a lot of publicity—-most of it negative. The organization which employs the pastor has now apologized and made clear that the message this pastor preached was biblically unsound.

Two examples of sermons that should not have been preached! Two examples of preachers who shared a dubious kind of theology. The Adventist pastor was infected by the so-called “headship theology” that not only has convinced many Adventists that female pastors should not be ordained, but that eventually leads to the belief that women are the property of their husbands and can be treated as such. The evangelical pastor in the Netherlands ignored one of the ground rules of preaching, i.e. that a sermon must always be based on the careful exegesis of a biblical passage and not on his own creative ideas. He simply took a few verses of Scripture and linked these to the feelings of unease that he observed in society, and on that basis wildly speculated about possible future developments in society. These speculations contained elements that can only be defined as conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, this is a trend that is present in a major part of evangelical Christianity and—also in the Netherlands, in a growing number of main-line protestant congregations.

Sound theology that refrains from speculation and sensationalism must remain the basis of responsible preaching. It is something the individual preacher should always remember and his/her employing organization must constantly emphasize and demand.