Monthly Archives: August 2022

Something I do not understand

I try to keep abreast of important world news as best I can. This is especially true with regard to what is happening in the United States. There are two main reasons for this. I studied in the US and later lived there for a few years. And over the years I have been there often (and have enjoyed my visits). But in addition, there is another aspect: The church to which I belong originated in America, and whether we like it or not, Adventism has remained in many ways an American movement.

There are many things in the U.S. which I admire and there are quite a few Americans among my friends. But from time to time there are also things that I absolutely don’t understand. The continued adoration by millions of ex-President Trump is absolutely incomprehensible to me. The more we learn about him, the harder I find it to understand that there are still people who would like to see him back in the White House in 2024. Another thing I absolutely do not understand is why it is so easy to get guns in the United States. Compared to other Western countries, there are far more fatal shootings in the country than anywhere else, and all indications are that the huge amount of guns in circulation is directly related to that. The invocation of an amendment in the constitution to guarantee the right of self-defense dates back to a very different time with completely different circumstances.

And yes, there are a few more things that I definitely don’t understand. But something incomprehensible has now been added to that: the broad opposition to a new law that will ensure that Americans with study debt see their debt reduced by $10,000. For certain groups, the reduction will be even a little more. You would think that this decision would be received as good news, because student loans in the U.S. can be of such a magnitude that it can sometimes be a major financial burden for decades. But it appears that this plan is meeting with enormous opposition from large groups of the population. The main argument is that it would be unfair. After all, millions of Americans are missing out. They have been working very hard to pay off their student loans and now suddenly there is a large group that is going to get a huge gift from the government. Why should they get that benefit while the people who studied earlier didn’t? I saw a Facebook post by Ben Carson (a Christian-yes, even a Seventh-day Adventist) who emphasizes how he himself started from a disadvantaged background and had to work hard, and how it only made him stronger. And that is why he is totally against the plan. I really don’t understand this at all. It is frequently the case (fortunately) that there are things from which people can benefit now and in the future, while earlier generations could not, and that is something to be grateful for, isn’t it?

Like Ben Carson, I come from a family where poverty was the order of the day. I had to work very hard to pay for my studies. When I studied theology at Newbold College and later at Andrews University, there was not a penny of subsidy from the church or anywhere else. Today that is very different. Those who now want to become a pastor in the Adventist Church can count on very generous financial support. In some countries the study of theology has recently even become completely free. Should that frustrate me because I didn’t have this benefit at the time? On the contrary. I am glad that the situation has become very different now.

No, I really can’t understand why the plan to help people with their study debt meets with so much resistance. Or is it mainly the fact that it is a plan of the Democrats and that, therefore, Republicans by definition must be against it? But then, can’t Christians at least react positively, if there is relief for many fellow-citizens who would have to carry a financial burden for many years? After all, assisting one’s neighbor remains a Christian principle, and this should also be a guiding principle when dealing with social issues, regardless of the political party they prefer.


In many ways I am fascinated by the phenomenon of borders. You drive through an area. Suddenly you see how houses change in architecture. Most cars now have a different kind of license plate. People speak a particular language, but a few miles down the road that is no longer the case.

Today, in much of Europe, there are virtually no checks at land borders. In the past few weeks I have crossed six national borders, but nowhere did I have to take out my passport. I experience the Schengen arrangement of the 26 European countries, which in principle no longer apply mutual border controls, as a very positive development.

Unfortunately, it is still quite cumbersome to get visas to travel to some parts of the world, while certain countries still have themselves completely sealed off from the outside world. I think back with horror to the controls between the former ‘free’ West and Communist East-Germany. But even between our own country and the outside world, real borders existed until not so long ago. On my first (school) trip across the border, men in uniform came into the train at Oldenzaal (at the station at the Dutch-German border) to check our passports, and when I worked in the Adventist publishing house in the 1970s and 1980s and regularly took quantities of books to Belgium, there were still stops to be made at the Dutch-Belgian border because of VAT obligations.

In some parts of the world, one sees not just occasional signs to mark the border, but formidable border fences. The division between North and South Korea is perhaps the most tragic example. But also the walls between Mexico and the U.S., and between parts of Israel and the Palestinian territories, and in a number of places in Eastern and Central Europe, keep people cruelly away from each other.

A world without borders is an utopia. Borders are necessary to order our society. This is true on a large as well as a small scale. A country must know where its right to demand taxes begins and ends. A farmer needs to know where he can let his cows graze, and a homeowner needs to know what is the extent of his garden.

At the same time, it is also good to realize that borders are man-made and that they can sometimes be very problematic. The straight lines on the map of Africa often run right through the territories of peoples who have lived there for centuries. Now their lands may lie partly in one state and partly in another–with all the ethnic tensions that result. Closer to home we also see examples of this in Europe, especially in the Balkans.

Sometimes, however, you see the relative nature of borders. Between Pakistan and India—which have been at odds with each other for decades—there is, just over 20 kilometers from Lahore, a border crossing in the highway between the two countries. On a visit to Pakistan, I was taken to see the daily ceremonies at the border. I was not the only one who came to watch. The grandstand built on the Pakistani side was packed with spectators. At exactly four o’clock a spectacle begins in which a group of the tallest soldiers from both countries participate. Finally, after much marching and menacing shouting, the metal gate is slammed shut with the loudest possible bang. If there is a real border somewhere, it is between Pakistan and India. But as soon as the gate is slammed shut, you see how the participants in the ceremony, via a shortcut, meet socially and have a drink together! The countries are in a state of war, but the individual people apparently see each other not just as enemies but primarily as fellow human beings.

In a collection of Dutch Revival Songs there is the song entitled “Together in the Name of Jesus.” The second stanza refers to boundaries being demolished by the Spirit, because those boundaries are man-made. It is often almost impossible to break down the boundaries that people have made. You see this everywhere-in world affairs, and in national and regional politics. Sometimes the boundaries between different churches and within a community of faith are perhaps the hardest to break through. This can only happen when we realize that these borders are made by people, but that with the help of the Spirit we can jump over those borders, or even dismantle them.

Called by God to murder

I enjoy reading a paper book, but during a vacation it is convenient to use an e-reader. Besides more serious reading, I usually enjoy a book with a good deal of suspense. I then often go for a Scandinavian thriller. Somehow the Scandinavian countries have produced a multitude of good writers of police novels.
Last night I reached the denouement of one of the most recent books by the Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen, in his series about the Q department of the Danish police that deals with unsolved murder cases from the past. I read Natrium Chlorid (2021) in a Dutch translation. I can read a Swedish book without too much difficulty, but Danish is a bit more challenging. So I opted for a Dutch translation. Unfortunately, the quality of the translation left to be desired and perhaps (in retrospect) I should have chosen the English version. But the story was no less exciting and the plot of the book no less sophisticated!

The staff of Department Q eventually managed to discover the identity of a criminal who managed to stay under the radar for several decades and gruesomely murdered a total of 17 people. She was finally unmasked while in the process of carrying out her final murder,

The remarkable thing about this criminal woman was her motive. She felt that God had called her to eliminate on His behalf people who were a moral stain on society. She was an avenging angel and her divine calling provided the motivation for her murderous career. This allowed her to thank God for allowing her to be His tool when, after days or weeks of torment, she administered a lethal injection to her victims.

Perhaps it is a professional deformation on my part that even when reading a police novel I look for material that I can possibly use in a sermon. In this case, it was rather obvious. In this novel, the perpetrator’s religious beliefs led to a spate of deadly violence. Often a person’s religious conviction–the belief that God has called you to a particular task-leads to a life of loving devotion to an ideal. But often religion is also the basis for all kinds of questionable activities. Religion can become the cover for political extremism, as well as for all kinds of other forms of fanaticism and intolerance. Religious people can be very unpleasant or downright dangerous, especially when religion is linked to nationalism and a sense of ethnic superiority. Within a spiritual community, a link between religion and unbridled ambition can be an enormous threat. And when the idea of being chosen by God, to call his church to order, is coupled with a fundamentalist approach to dogmatic certainties, it can easily lead to spiritual coercion and verbal abuse.

We can hardly defend ourselves against the accusation that religion has through the centuries caused enormous misery. In many conflicts, religious intolerance is a major (and often deadly) component. In doctrinal and ethical conflicts in the church, the peace of Christ is often tragically absent. Ultimately, the religion of Jesus Christ is about becoming better people. According to Matthew 25, the final assessment of all us is how compassionate we have been and whether we have met Christ in those around us. The question then is not how religious we have been, but how Christian (i.e., Christ-like) we have lived.

Visiting Jönköping–sixty years ago and last week

When, some sixty years ago, I traveled to Sweden for the first time, my first stop was in Jönköping. It is a city of almost 100,000 people on the southern tip of the large, elongated Lake Vättern. If you drive into Sweden from the south you have about 300 km ahead of you before you get to Jönköping. Back then, over sixty years ago, I hitchhiked from the Netherlands to Jönköping in less than two days. I arrived at the apartment of Pastor Stig Sjölander in the middle of the night. He was the coordinator of the canvassing program of the Swedish Adventist Church. Every year more than a hundred young people came to Sweden (and also to Norway and Iceland) to earn their schoolfees by selling Adventist books and magazines. A steady stream of them also came from Holland. I had heard of this adventurous method of earning money, and had applied for one of the slots. Soon I received a letter telling me to report to the indicated address in Jönköping. After arriving, I was allowed to sleep for a few hours on a traditional Swedish couch in the kitchen. But early in the morning I was awakened by Stig Sjölander. He told me that we would be taking the train to the Värmland province. There he had arranged lodging for me and there would be my work area. During the trip he would give me the necessary instructions!

It was my first introduction to Sweden, and I could not yet have imagined that I would go there again and again over the years–perhaps some 40 or 50 times. The first stay that began that night in Jönköping lasted six months with a brief interruption after three months. I earned enough to pay for the first year of my studies at Oud Zandbergen (the theological school the Adventist Church had in the Netherlands at that time). A few years later, I and two fellow-students went to Sweden for a summer with the goal of scraping together the tuition for Newbold College. A year later, almost immediately after I married my wife Aafje, we went to Sweden together for three months, this time to earn enough to be able to survive financially for a year at Andrews University in the US.

In the meantime, canvassing with Adventist books is no longer an option. Government regulations have gradually made it impossible to come for a few months and do this kind of work in Scandinavia. This, by the way, is what has happened almost everywhere in the western world: door-to-door sales activities have been more and more restricted. This meant a huge disadvantage for the denominational publishers who, for decades, generated a significant portion of their income from these door-to-door sales. In the Netherlands, the church’s colporting system fizzled out by the end of the 1980s.

For some fifteen years now, my wife and I have been regularly traveling to Sweden to visit our son and our grandchildren, who live some 800 km further north of Jönköping. When we drive through southern and central Sweden, we often pass through places where we once tried to sell our books. That was also the case last week. A number of times we have stayed a night in a hotel in Jönköping. This time we decided to stay there for two nights and take the opportunity to go to the Jönköping Adventist church on Saturday morning.

Such a visit to an unknown church is not always a great success. Sometimes you hardly feel welcome and are barely greeted. But here, in this beautiful church building, with a gorgeous view of the lake, we were warmly welcomed. Among the people were also some retired Swedish pastors, with their wives, whom I knew from the times when I had an international role in the church. After the service there was a free meal and we were told we definitely had to stay for that! Then we were invited by one of the retired pastors to have a drink at their home, and soon after we arrived in their home the other two retired couples also appeared. All in all, it was the kind of Sabbath that reminded me once again how good it is to belong to the worldwide Adventist Church.

But, I was assured, the next time we are in Jönköping, we should not book a hotel room, since there are several homes where people will be happy to accommodate us. And then, of course, I must do the preaching in the Sabbath morning service!