Monthly Archives: February 2022

About psalms and organ music

In my previous blog I wrote about the hymnal of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands which has now been in use for forty years. One of the special features of this hymnal is the section with the 150 psalms. At the time when this hymnal was created, many church members indicated that they wanted to sing more psalms in our church service. However, the expectation (which I also had) that this would indeed happen, has not materialized. Only occasionally a psalm is chosen for communal singing in the Adventist worship service.

I have often wondered about the reason for this reluctance to sing psalms. While in many respects there has been a tendency in recent decades to adopt practices from the general Protestant tradition–such as pronouncing the Votum at the beginning of the divine service, and giving the blessing at the end of the service–there has not been such a development with regard to psalm singing. Was this perhaps partly due to the fact that the Adventist Hymnal adopted a rather unknown version of the psalter, namely that of Rev. H. Hasper (1886-1974)? The reason for this choice was that we faced difficulties in obtaining the rights to include the psalter that is most commonly used by Protestant in the Netherlands. The foundation that owns the rights to Hasper’s psalter was willing to allow us the use of their psalter under conditions that were attractive to both parties. However, psalm singing in the Dutch Adventist Church has remained at a low ebb and it does not look as if this will change any time soon.

Yet, the singing of psalms has not only remained popular in the most conservative Protestant churches in the Netherlands, but psalms also continue to have a permanent place in most “moderate” Protestant denominations. A recent survey found that psalm 121 and psalm 42 rank highest in popularity. Perhaps the time has come that I choose one of these psalms as the hymns to be sung with one of my sermons. The words are beautiful and I find them much more meaningful than the text of most popular hymns.

Perhaps what surprised me most in the outcome of the recent survey was the fact that for many churchgoers the organ is still the preferred instrument in the church service . 62 percent of the members of the United Church of the Netherlands prefer organ accompaniment. The piano and a band score much lower, at 26 and 19 percent respectively. So, the fact that I still like organ accompaniment in church singing does not make me unique!

The hymns of Johan de Heer (1866-1961) also seem to be as popular as ever in the Dutch Protestant churches. Johan de Heer, the writer and composer of hundreds of hymns, was in his younger years for some time a member of the Adventist Church in Rotterdam. He left Adventism in 1902 and later became the leader of the interdenominational “Zoeklicht” movement, which focused primarily on the return of Christ. In a sense, therefore, he remained an Adventist.

Finally: I was not surprised that the survey showed that “Go with God” is very popular. One in twenty members of the United Protestant Church of the Netherlands mentioned that hymn as their favorite. Also high on the list of popular hymns: are “Abba, Father” and “I Will Be There.” In our Adventist circles, these hymns are also frequently sung. I can personally also appreciate “Go with God”. But once in a while a psalm . . I would really enjoy it!

Do we need a new hymnal in the Dutch Adventist Church?

It is exactly forty years ago this year that the Dutch Adventists started using their new hymnal (now mostly known as “the red hymnbook”). Its history was quite complicated, but when the LIEDBOEK VOOR DE ADVENTKERK was ready in 1982, the introduction in the churches went quite smoothly. Only a few congregations were hesitant to replace the old GEZANGEN ZIONS hymnal with the new one. But now, after forty years, the role of the hymnal has changed dramatically.

The Liedboek voor de Kerken–the ecumenical hymnal that most Protestant denominations in the Netherlands have now used for several decades–dates from 1973. Gradually the feeling arose in Protestant Netherlands that this hymnal was in need of a radical overhaul. In 2013–exactly forty years after its predecessor was introduced–the new ecumenical hymnal was a fact.

For some time now, I have felt that the Adventist Church in the Netherlands is also in urgent need of a renewed hymnal. But I must immediately admit that I have strong emotional ties with “the red book,” so that my opinion is far from objective. Many church members have noticed by now that, when I am invited to preach somewhere, and am asked to select a few appropriate hymns, I always limit myself to hymns from the official hymnal. There are two reasons for this. The first is simply a matter of taste. I like the traditional church hymns much better than most of the “revival songs”, songs of the “happy-clappy” variety, and most of the songs from the youth hymn book (the so-called “blue book”). Especially, the verses in which single words or phrases are almost endlessly repeated do not appeal to me. I recognize that the Corona-era has significantly increased the popularity of such songs, with all the streaming and YouTube services that replaced regular church services.

The second reason is, that I was very closely involved in the creation of our current hymnal. When, some 45 years ago, it was decided that the old GEZANGEN ZIONS was to be replaced, a committee was formed, in accordance with good Adventist practice. From the start I was a member of this committee. At that time, I was in charge of our church publishing house “Veritas”, and it was my job to make sure that the church would have a steady supply of hymnals. The committee soon came to the conclusion that we were setting ourselves an unnecessarily burdensome task. After all, a beautiful hymnal had just been created by the Dutch Protestant churches. Why couldn’t Adventists make use of that as well? A proposal to do so was, however, firmly rejected by the union board: we had to have our own Adventist collection of hymns and not a hymn book that was compiled by “others”. It was conveniently forgotten that the GEZANGEN ZIONS hymnal had actually been compiled by a Dutch Reformed minister, because at that time we did not have the necessary expertise, and that most of the hymns we had been singing for decades, were borrowed from non-Adventist sources.

The committee was disappointed, but we tried again. I negotiated with the interdenominational committee that dealt with the rights of the ecumenical hymnal, and a compromise finally emerged. Under certain conditions we were allowed to add about a hundred hymns that were popular in our church to this hymnal. That proposal also could not find favor with our national administrators. The committee then decided to dissolve itself, and since there were no copies of GEZANGEN ZIONS left in stock, I then set myself the task, with the staff of “Veritas,” to provide a new hymn book. After some time I did get some help from a few people. The cooperation of Rob Schouten was especially important (see the preface in the hymnal). Rob came from an Adventist family, and therefore knew the Adventist jargon. Having studied Dutch literature, he was an expert in the field of the Dutch language. In addition, he had musical talents and had already published several books of poetry. For about two years we met on a weekly basis to work on new or revised texts. I still have very good memories of that time.

All this perhaps explains why “the red hymn book” is still a very special book to me. But this does not take away from the fact that, in my opinion, the church is ready for a new hymnal. Undoubtedly, the local churches will continue to use several popular hymnals, but, perhaps we are now ready to consider also using the new ecumenical hymnal of 2013. There may be a few hymns that do not appeal to us as Adventists, but there is so much to choose from in this collection of hymns that, in my opinion, this can hardly be an objection! It would, I think, be an enormous enrichment for our worship services.

Just in the last few weeks, a survey of the preferences of churchgoers with respect to hymns for the worship service in various churches has been published. More on that next week.

Intolerable sexual behavior

The subject of Corona has long dominated the Dutch media, but in recent weeks another topic has also become the talk of the day: intolerable sexual behavior.
Of course, the Me-too commotion of a few years ago did also affect our country. And we have also been kept up to date, in much sordid detail, about the scandals surrounding Jeffrey Epstein and his assistant-in-arms, Ghislaine Maxwell, who now has to answer to the courts. Sexual excesses by politicians, prominent businessmen and key people in the entertainment industry have also been widely reported in the media.

But currently the spotlight is on abuses at home. There has been a shocked reaction to revelations of things that happened behind the scenes of the Voice of Holland talent show. A number of girls and young women have come forward and told of the way they have been treated by a few of the organizers and mentors of the popular show. The accusations range from inappropriate jokes, groping and outright assault and rape. A second shockwave was caused by the sexual misconduct of a director of the Ajax soccer club in Amsterdam, who had no choice but to immediately resign after a number of women accused him of sexual misconduct. It turned out that among other things, he sent pictures of his genitals to women in his work environment. In passing, I learned a word that had so far remained unknown to me: “dickpic.” But from the reports in the newspapers and the discussions on the talk shows, I have since learned that sending women unsolicited photos of one’s male private parts is a fairly common practice. Also this week, an MP chose to resign from politics after it became known that he was guilty of serious sexual misconduct. Meanwhile, the government has appointed Ms. Mariëtte Hamer, a well-known politician, to advise the authorities on such delicate matters.

Sexual intolerable behavior is, of course, not a new phenomenon. In many social organizations and companies, a culture has long prevailed in which men set the (often inappropriate) tone, and women hardly dared to protest when they were treated as sexual objects, and had to put up with all kinds of physical closeness and humiliating “jokes.” Especially in “higher” circles men could get away with things that are not acceptable. Often maids proved to be easy prey for the adolescent son of the lord and lady of the house. Cheating–keeping a mistress–was commonplace among the nobility. Currently, the British Prince Andrew is under heavy fire, but the antics of the Dutch royal highnesses Prince Hendrik and Prince Bernard remain also well known.

Unfortunately, the church was not always an oasis of sexual modesty. The Roman Catholic Church has lost much of its moral authority due to the misconduct of large numbers of clergy. As recently as this week, suspicion flared up again against former Pope Benedict for allegedly ignoring sexual misconduct by a number of priests when he was a bishop and, later, a cardinal in Germany. In the recent past in some Protestant megachurches, clerical leaders have been found to be sexual predators. That priests and pastors (including some in the Adventist Church) sometimes succumb to sexual temptations is not a new development.

It is not always clear where exactly the line must be drawn between imprudent and totally unacceptable behavior, between an innocent flirtation and unwanted intimacy, and where a definite line is crossed. And for all the male misconduct, it must also be recognized that not all women are always paragons of pious purity. It is also clear that there are cultural differences between what should be considered right or wrong. But these and other oft-heard arguments cannot, of course, condone the current wave of reprehensible behavior. Anno 2022, we should all know that misogynistic and harassing behavior in any form cannot be tolerated.

At the same time, Christians must realize that all forms of sexually intolerable behavior must be condemned. There is always a question of immoral behavior when women are discriminated against and cannot achieve the same role and status as their male counterpart because of her gender. The failure to fully recognize female ministers is not primarily a theological issue but a moral problem.

Finally, to all of this, I do think it should be added that the emphasis may be too one-sidedly on sexual misconduct–however serious this is. There are other forms of immoral behavior that are all too often tolerated. One can behave correctly toward the opposite sex, but at the same time be oblivious to the needs of others or not be too careful with the truth–to give just two examples. Therefore, before passing judgment on others, let us always realize that unfortunately there may some moral issues that may need attention in our own life.

A sad case of suspicion

A few weeks ago, I wrote a chapter for a publication about conspiracy theories and the dangers of fake news, with special reference to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In my piece I try to explain why many Adventist believers are quite open to bizarre theories, and I give some very poignant examples of conspiracy thinking. I had wanted to include an incident in the year 2000, when I experienced a very strong case of this kind of thinking, which led to deep suspicions about the role of church leaders. Not until this week I was able to add a few paragraphs about this incident to my essay, since I waited for the documentary evidence that I wanted to quote from. I knew of the existence of correspondence between our church and the Vatican about a particular issue and asked the help of someone who has access to the archives of the Adventist Church in Silver Spring (USA). A few days ago he informed me he had located the correspondence and sent me copies.

In 1998 Pope John Paul II published an apostolical letter entitled Dies Domini—the Day of the Lord. It focused on the importance of a weekly day of rest—the weekly Sunday. Apart from failing to mention that the biblical Sabbath is on the seventh day of the week, rather than on the first day, most of the theology of this document was quite good. However, lots of Adventists were greatly alarmed by the statement of the pope that civil governments have the duty to ensure that people are able to keep their Sunday. Did this not sound warning bells about a possible future legal enforcement of Sunday keeping, with all the dire consequences for those who want to obey God’s law and keep the seventh-day Sabbath?

Dr. Bert B. Beach, the director of the Public Affairs and Religions Liberty (PARL) department at the headquarters office of the Adventist Church, decided to write to the Vatican and seek clarity as to what the papal statement exactly meant. I am quoting from his letter to Bishop Pierre Duprey, a key prelate at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity: “The specific question I wish to ask is whether the Pope, that is the Holy See, is in fact also affirming or willing to affirm, the parallel civil right of Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Muslims, and other Christians and non-Christian groups, to have their observance of their day of rest equally protected and guaranteed by law. For Seventh-day Adventists this is a deeply-felt, even prophetic, issue.”
It took a while (until May the following year) before the Vatican responded. Bishop Duprey explained that he had consulted with a. number of high officials at the Vatican in order to respond with authority. I am quoting from the document that resulted from this consultation and that was sent to the Adventist Church through the office of dr. Beach: “The response to this question [posed in the letter of November 1998 by Beach], as can be appreciated, cannot be other than affirmative. . . . It is undoubtedly true that the right to a day of rest in conformity to individual cult, being an integral component of the right to religious freedom, is by its very nature valid also for those pertaining to religious traditions not celebrating this day on Sunday.”

A little more than a year later the quinquennial session of the Adventist world church was held in Toronto, Canada. In the week preceding the session a special meeting was held of all PARL directors, at all administrative levels of the church, who had come to Toronto as delegates to the upcoming session. I was one of the speakers, as I was at that time, in addition to being the general secretary of the Trans-European Division, also in charge of the division’s PARL department. On the agenda of the meeting was, among many other items, the Dies Domini document, with the letter dr. Beach had written to the Vatican and the response that came some six months later. The letters were read to the approximately 200 participants of the meeting and copies were distributed. To my astonishment there were but few expressions of satisfaction with the response from Rome. On the contrary there was widespread suspicion. This simply could not possibly be the response of the Vatican, since we all know the devious machinations that Rome is up to. Many expressed as their opinion that the response that had come from the Vatican–indicating that religious freedom and protection by the civil authorities with regard to keeping a day of rest, certainly also extended to Sabbath keepers, as the Seventh-day Adventists–could not be genuine. The statement that was read at the Toronto meeting had to be fake. It must have been concocted by dr. Beach and his staff, possibly in cahoots with others, for some sinister reasons. Knowing what we (supposedly) know about the deceitful strategies of the Catholic Church and its ultimate goals, this was the only possible conclusion.

When I remember the ensuing debate, I still feel extremely uneasy. This was evidence that a very lamentable kind of conspiracy thinking had, even as long as some twenty years ago, even penetrated at leadership levels in our church. I am afraid that the same kind of thinking is still all too present at many levels of our denomination. Unfortunately!