Yearly Archives: 2022

Total Membership Involvement

One of the slogans the Seventh-day Adventist Church launched a few years ago was: TOTAL MEMBERSHIP INVOLVEMENT. I recently looked at some of the articles and sermons which explained the focus of this drive for the active involvement of all church members. It is the name for a world-wide evangelistic thrust. All members are called upon to witness in every possible way, so that the spreading of the Adventist message will gain a new momentum.

I personally prefer to emphasize ‘total commitment’ rather than ‘total involvement’ in an evangelistic strategy. What does it mean to be committed to something? It is more than a willingness to do something. It has to do with all that we are and have. There is a major difference between mere involvement and commitment. We know what it takes to make a ham-and-eggs breakfast. The chicken must be involved by providing the egg. But to have the ham you need a pig that is totally committed.

The English word ‘Commitment’ has Latin roots: It is derived from the word Committare i.e. bringing together, uniting, joining, engaging. English dictionaries refer to the act of binding ourselves, intellectually or emotionally to a course of action. Or to a pledge to do something; to feel obligated or impelled.

We find examples in the Bible of people who were totally committed. Think of Noah and his ark project on which he worked relentlessly for many decades, perhaps as long as 120 years. Think of Abraham and his willingness to travel into an unknown land and to embark on an unknown future. Think of Moses and the leadership he provided to a huge multitude during the exodus from slavery in Egypt and the ensuing forty years sojourn through the desert. Think of Ruth, who, after her tragic losses, was not prepared to give up on Naomi and on the God she had come to know. Think of the apostles, of their courage to take the gospel to faraway places and who, except John, died a martyr’s death.

But we can also think of many more recent examples of totally committed people:
• Martin Luther King jr, who saw a dream and died because of it.
• Albert Schweitzer, the talented theologian, musician and medical doctor, who spent a major part of his life under primitive, circumstances in an African hospital in Lambarene, in the African state of Gabon.
• Mother Theresa and her life’s ministry to the outcast in India.
• Nelson Mandela, who led his country into a new future, after having been imprisoned for many years on Robin Island.
And I could mention the names of many committed people – whom I have come to know over the years, in and outside the church.

What is Christian commitment?
Christian commitment is not primarily being committed to a set of doctrines, important though this element may be. Christian commitment is magnificently described in Mark 12:30, 31: It is loving the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength. And this must be complemented by loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Total Commitment is a commitment to the core Christian values of love, justice and truth. And yes, it includes involvement to service, to accepting responsibilities. But that is not where it starts. Total commitment to Jesus Christ means to be his disciples, who look towards Christ as the primary Source of inspiration for their lives. And everything else will follow.

Vulnerability

We are regularly confronted with the vulnerability of our society. The Covid pandemic not only took millions of lives worldwide, and landed hundreds of thousands in ICUs, but also brought economic chaos and enormous social misery. We are also experiencing in many other ways how easily our world can be disrupted, because we are so incredibly vulnerable. In recent days, the leaks from the Nordstream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, which carry gas from Russia to Western Europe, have been constantly in the news. Is it a curious coincidence that a leak occurs in two pipelines almost at the same time? Or is it sabotage? Can a hostile power so easily suddenly upset our energy supply? Are we that vulnerable? Yes, we are!.

Another news item today was about storm Ian, leaving all of Cuba without power. How vulnerable Florida’s infrastructure is will become apparent in the next few hours. I heard on a radio program earlier today that the Netherlands is especially vulnerable due to the fact that many transatlantic data cables come ashore here via the North Sea. If a hostile power wanted to cause a lot of IT misery, this would be the perfect place to dispatch a few submarines to.

All countries have become increasingly vulnerable in the twenty-first century. Cyber-attacks can wreak havoc on virtually everything, from banking to drinking water supplies, and from health care to air travel. And so on. The Netherlands must remain constantly alert with regard to its sea and river dikes. Things can easily go wrong again, with fatal consequences.

Most of us also realize how vulnerable we are ourselves. Accidents are just around the corner for all of us, especially for those of is who belong to the elderly. We all know reasonably healthy people who have suddenly suffered a heart attack or brain infarct, or who are unexpectedly diagnosed with metastatic cancer.

Small businesses often prove to be extremely vulnerable when a staff member, who has vital expertise, decides that she will go to a competitor where a higher salary is offered. Sometimes trains can’t run in a good part of our country, because a few people who control the train traffic from the central switchboard in Utrecht have called in sick.

Yes, and churches are also vulnerable–local congregations as well as the ‘higher’ organizations. Perhaps this is even more true (especially at higher levels) for the Seventh-day Adventist Church than for many other faith communities, because a few individuals at the top of Adventist organizations often have quite a lot of power. They can steer policies in a particular direction, and it can take many years for this to be undone. The history of the Adventist church provides ample examples of this.

A local congregation also often proves to be extremely vulnerable. The aging of some members and a few moves can make it increasingly difficult to find enough people for all necessary tasks. In a small congregation a few newcomers with extreme ideas can adversely affect the atmosphere in such a way that some members prefer to go worship elsewhere, and the congregation may enter into a negative spiral.

But, fortunately, sometimes things can go the other way and a few newcomers can pull an organization out of the doldrums. But that our society–including our church environment–is and remains fragile, is a fact we cannot brush away. And that is all the more reason for us to make an effort to be vigilant when individuals and ideas emerge that cause harm, and to offer support, where we can, to positive trends and to those at various levels who want to give these trends the space they need to develop further.

Asylum seekers in the Dutch Bible Belt

My previous blog was about some aspects of poverty in the Netherlands. This week I also want to address a social problem, namely that of caring for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. There is quite a bit of confusion about how these different groups should be defined. However, there are international agreements about that.

A refugee is someone who is forced, often quite suddenly, to flee his or her country, usually because of war, other forms of violence or religious persecution. International bodies determine whether people are granted refugee status. They may not be turned away by the country in which they ended up.The status of asylum seekers is uncertain until their right to asylum is assessed by the authorities in the country in which they seek asylum. Migrants are people who voluntarily go to another country, for example for work or study, and may after some time return to their country of origin.

Currently, the Netherlands is experiencing a crisis in dealing with asylum seekers. This is also the case in many other Western countries, but I follow what happens in my country more closely than the situation elsewhere. In recent months we have been confronted with the distressing situation at the national registration center for asylum seekers in Ter Apel (a small town in the North of the country, not far from the German border). There, all those who want to seek asylum in the Netherlands must register. In recent months, it appears that things in this center are no longer under control. It frequently takes several days before newcomers can register, and during that time there are often not enough facilities to accommodate them. As a result, hundreds regularly have to spend the night outside–under conditions that are simply degrading. The underlying problem, we are told, is that people cannot move on quickly enough to the various asylum-seeking centers elsewhere in the country, which in turn are full because there are too few houses for people whose applications have been approved and who are allowed to stay in the country. The current number of asylum seekers is not excessively high, but many facilities were closed in recent years after the huge flow of Syrians largely dried up. Whatever the causes, however, it remains incomprehensible and intolerable for me that in a modern and prosperous country we cannot prevent men, women and even children (!) from having to spend the night outside.

Of course, it is rather easy to blame the government for the chaos in Ter Apel. But I sometimes almost feel sorry for Mr. Eric van den Burg, the State Secretary for Asylum and Migration, who travels up and down the country to find places where asylum seekers can be temporarily housed. In most cases, he gets zero response. In Bant–a village about 65 kilometers from where I live–the government has bought land to establish a facility that could relieve the registration center in Ter Apel. The population of this village has fiercely opposed this plan-for understandable reasons, by the way. Yet . . where can something be arranged without opposition and problems? Fortunately, measures are now being taken to ensure that the flow of asylum seekers can soon be managed.

This past week, however, I came across an aspect of the asylum-seeker problem that not only surprised but deeply disappointed me. Journalists have discovered that especially municipalities in the so-called Bible Belt refuse to provide housing for groups of asylum seekers. The so-called Bible Belt runs across the Netherlands, from Overijssel to Zeeland. In this broad strip of land live relatively many people who belong to conservative Reformed denominations. So, these are people for whom religion plays an important role in their lives. They often vote for a Christian party. In contrast, municipalities in which a large percentage vote “green” are most likely to help Mr van der Burg find places to house asylum seekers! And most of these “green” people tend to be non-religious.

As a Christian, I feel ashamed when confronted with such things. I don’t feel very connected to the way a significant portion of the Christian population in the Bible Belt deal with their faith. But surely, I thought I could expect them to be familiar enough with the contents of the Bible to know that caring for refugees is a very important issue to God. To hear that they, in particular, fall short on this point is surely very disappointing. Might perhaps the “greens” and other socially engaged people have understood in some respects more of the gospel than many Christians who often attend church twice on Sundays? As I write these lines, a Bible text comes to mind: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21 NIV). It definitely is God’s will that we care for refugees and asylum seekers.

Poverty

Since the current Dutch government-Rutte IV-has been in power, we have had a minister for poverty issues. I find Carola Schouten one of the most sympathetic ministers in our government–and that’s not just because she belongs to the political party that usually gets my vote. Minister Schouten comes across as someone who does her work with full conviction. That she is now dealing so intensely with poverty issues is in keeping with her personal history. She went through a phase in her own life when, as an unwed mother, she found it very challenging to make ends meet. It is to her credit that she speaks openly about this.

That a wealthy country like the Netherlands (fourth richest country in the world) needs a minister for poverty issues is actually appalling. Why is it that so many people for one reason or another end up below the poverty line ? According to recent statistics, that is the fate of at least 600,000 Dutch families. And with the current energy crisis and skyrocketing prices for electricity and especially gas, many more people will end up in poverty.

What is poverty? Looking at the common definitions used by government agencies, the family I grew up in lived in pure poverty for quite some time. For several years we had no running water in our house, no electricity and only a toilet at some distance from our house. I was given an old bicycle to go to secondary school at some 12 km from our home. A grant from the municipality in which we lived ensured that we could buy textbooks. There was no question of vacation. And eating out was limited to the occasional bag of chips (which cost 25 cents in those days). We were poor, but I don’t remember feeling really poor–even though I knew, of course, that our lives were different from those of most of my classmates. I had gotten used to there being very little of everything.

During the first year of our marriage, it was not easy to make ends meet. We were in the United States, where I was pursuing my master’s degree at Andrews University. We arrived with a thousand dollars in our pockets, worked extremely hard (in addition to studying) all year, and then had about a hundred dollars left. We enjoyed that year in many ways, but, viewed objectively, we were living near the poverty line!

And now? Are we poor or rich? No, we are not poor. We are not in danger of being hit by the energy crisis. We do see the supermarket prices going up, but it has not yet dramatically changed our shopping patterns. We went on vacation this year and visited one of the local pizzerias last night. Poor people cannot afford to do this. We are not rich compared to those who are high earners and live in a big villa with one or more luxury automobiles in the double garage. But we are rich compared to the large numbers of people in all sorts of places around the world who, even today, don’t know where to get the food for their malnourished children. And we are certainly also rich compared to the hundreds of thousands in our own country who, through no fault of their own, have fallen into poverty.

I hope that our government–with broad political support–will soon come up with measures to help the people who have now fallen, or are in danger of falling, into poverty because of the energy crisis. And that the Poverty Minister’s policies will make a difference, and that much will be done structurally to achieve and ensure greater social justice.

As a Christian, I realize that the Bible indicates that God pays extra attention to people on the margins. It is clear that He expects people, who say they believe in Him, to also have an eye for the “poor” around them and to demonstrate that with their actions.

In doing so, however, there is a problem. Most of us live in our own “bubble.” I do not have people in my family and friends who have to go to the food bank or are in danger of being evicted because of rent arrears. However, perhaps in the coming winter the time has come for me and others in my “bubble” to step out of that “bubble” and share some of our wealth, more actively than we have done so far, with those who are at the brink of survival.

Tell your story

In the latest issue of SPECTRUM–the independent journal published by the Adventist Forum organization–I was given the opportunity to tell of my theological and spiritual pilgrimage. The fact that this week I am turning eighty seems a good opportunity to look back and consider whether my thinking about faith and church might have changed over time. Many theologians and church leaders have taken stock toward the end of their lives and asked themselves, ‘How has my thinking matured and what have ultimately proven to be the most important things?’ I do not pretend to belong to that category of prominent theologians, but it seems to me that such a self-critical retrospective should not be the exclusive right of the great ones among us.

It became a rather long article, and I expected SPECTRUM to return it to me with the request to delete about half (or even more) of it. Except for a few points that they thought I should clarify a bit, my piece was accepted as I wrote it. Anyone who wants to read it should go to the latest issue of the journal–either in print or the digital version-and start at page 56: My Pilgrimage of Theology and Faith: What Remains.

To my great surprise, my article was followed by comments from no fewer than twelve colleagues/friends: Andreas Bochman (Friedensau University), Denis Fortin (Andrews University), Stefan Höschele (Friendensau), Robert Johnston (emeritus Andrews University), David Larson (emeritus Loma Linda University), Johannes Naether (president North German Union), Jan Paulsen (former General Conference president), Helen Pearson (Newbold College), Mike Pearson (Newbold College emeritus), Rolf Pöhler (emeritus Friedensau), Laurence Turner (Newbold College emeritus), and Jean-Clause Verrecchia (Collonges Seminary and Newbold College emeritus). Their comments are printed on pages 71-79 under the heading “Tributes.” Reading what they said about me was an humbling experience. I realize that not everyone will have an equally positive view of me. But people who matter to me wanted to let it be known that they have seen my commitment to my work in the church and that, in with all my flaws and shortcomings, I have always shown commitment and integrity.

I believe it is good to tell your story and I wish many more of my colleagues at home and abroad would do this. It may have gone a little out of fashion, but once upon a time people wrote their life story, sometimes already at a relatively young age. Ellen White and James White wrote autobiographies. The first edition of Ellen’s Life Sketches appeared in 1860, when she was 23. And James White wrote his Life Incidents when he was 47. I have quite a few books on the history of Adventism in my library and among them numerous biographies, but the number of autobiographies is very limited. There are only a few, e.g. Pilgrimage (1992) by Richard L. Hammill, a church leader in the 1960s and 1970s, and Ambassadors for Liberty (2012), in which Bert B. Beach describes his fascinating career. Both books are inspiring and well worth reading.

Recently, I read Edwin Zachrison’s Profile of a Religious Man (2020). In it, a theology professor/pastor tells his story, which is not all about progress and success. It is the story of someone who has also seen the ugly sides of the church. It is good that such stories are also told. Things that went well and had success should be told. That inspires and provides the church and society with important role models. But the things that hurt and made people unhappy should not be ignored. Reading about these things helps to stay critical and to see the all-too-human element in the church. It makes us realize that the church does not always succeed in creating an atmosphere where people can thrive spiritually.

Recently I spoke with someone who was a pastor in a congregation (not in the Netherlands, but elsewhere in Western Europe) for a number of years. During the conversation, his career switch came up. Why had he left the ministry, and chosen another profession? It was not a decision that suddenly emerged. The decisive moment had come when, at a meeting of pastors, he heard from of a division leader that as a pastor you are an employee of the church. For that you are paid your salary. This means that you have to follow the denominational guidelines in everything, and you must in your preaching in everything follow official church doctrine. If you don’t want to do that, the pastors were told, you should leave. And so he did. I said to him, You have to tell your story. People need to know that sometimes an atmosphere is created in which people who work for the church can no longer breathe.

I was able to tell my story in SPECTRUM. I’m grateful for that. I am also grateful (yes, I was really moved) by the tributes that accompanied my article. I hope it encourages others to also tell their stories. It will benefit themselves and many others.