Monthly Archives: October 2022

Esther, Ruth and the union constituency meeting

Esther and Ruth

My wife and I are loyal viewers of the television quiz Twee voor Twaalf. It is a classic program that has been on the tube for over fifty years, and has been presented by Astrid Joosten since 1991. In each program there are two teams of two people who must answer twelve questions on a variety of topics. The initial letters of the answers must then be put in the correct order to form a twelve-letter word. If one does not have a direct answer to a question, one may search a series of reference books and, in some cases, consult the computer. One earns points with correct answers, but loses points for long searches for answers and in the process of assembling the final word. All in all, a lighthearted, but interesting, and often exciting game.

Many participants really know a lot, and some are also skilled at quickly looking up the answers to what is asked. But with regard to biblical questions, that come up with some regularity, they often fail miserably. Such was the case last night. Rather simple questions were asked about women in the Bible, after whom a book of the Bible is named. These were Esther and Ruth, respectively. The first team gave a wrong answer, and the second team also did not know who was meant, but managed to look up the correct answer. In the past, we also regularly watched the BBC quiz program University Challenge, in which student teams from various British universities compete against each other. In this, the questions are usually much more difficult than in Twee voor Twaalf, and it is amazing how much the students often know. But when it comes to simple Bible questions, they fail as a rule.

Our society is thoroughly secularized and only a small part of the population still has a solid knowledge of the Bible. Knowledge of the content of the Christian faith and interest in the church as an institution has steadily declined over the past decades. And, unfortunately, we must conclude that the church–and also most individual believers in the church–have no answer to that problem. This was also evident at the constituency meeting of the Dutch Adventist Church that is currently being held.

During a quintennial congress, the main issues are electing the church leaders and reporting on the work of the previous five-year period. The Corona pandemic did cause many things to go differently than planned! What struck me most during the reporting was the recognition that too little has been done on evangelism in recent years. Several delegates urged that this point should be given a much higher priority in the coming years. But how this should be done? That remained rather vague! The Dutch Union president rightly noted that we live in a highly secularized society and that reaching the secularized people is a huge challenge. Yes, indeed, how do we reach the people with the biblical message, when they don’t remember Esther and Ruth, and when they admit they never read a Bible?

For now, it remains a matter of searching for new ways. The traditional methods of evangelism no longer work in the Western world. The challenge is to “translate” and “package” the core of the gospel in such a way that our words will relate to the fundamental questions the people around us have. The church’s past can inspire us, but cannot serve as a model to be followed in everything. Unfortunately, that is too often still a starting point for many. To explore new ways requires faith, together with expertise and creativity, as well as boldness and a freedom to experiment. A growing church in our time, and in the future, is an open community, where people feel safe, even if they are “different,” and even if they have questions to which there are no immediate answers. Ours should be a church where secularized people are welcome, and where they feel comfortable because of the atmosphere of being accepted as they are.

The goal of reaching out to the secularized people around us will not be achieved overnight in the new administrative period ahead of us. But it all begins with the understanding that as a church we must, at all levels, be (and in many cases: we must become!) an open, welcoming community that attracts people and does not repel or leave them indifferent-as still so often happens. This is a prerequisite for keeping a larger portion of our youth on board and offering a place of faith, hope and love to those seeking meaning and security in their lives.

I continue to hope (sometimes against my better judgment) that in the coming years the church I love will take that path more clearly than is often the case today, and that the desire of reaching out to our secularized fellowmen will prove to be more than a pious slogan without real content.

Bert Haloviak and 666

On October 18, Bert Haloviak passed away at the age of 84. Bert was a wonderful person, and will be greatly missed by all who knew him. For many years he was the head of the department of the Adventist Church that takes care of the archives and of the compilation of statistics. To those interested in the history of the Adventist Church, Bert Haloviak was best known for his phenomenal knowledge of the church’s past. I got to know him in 1992, when I spent several weeks doing research in the archives of the denominational headquarters in Silver Spring, not far from the U.S. capital Washington. There, in the basement of the General Conference office, was the domain of Bert Haloviak. I was warmly welcomed there for part of the work on my dissertation, in preparation of my doctorate from the University of London (UK) in August 1993.

I was researching the relationship between Adventism and Roman Catholicism in the period from 1844 to 1965 (the time of the Second Vatican Council). Much of my work had already been done at the James White library at Andrews University and at the Catholic Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, about 20 miles from Andrews. But there were some specific sources I wanted to check in the church’s archives. Any researcher knows that, as you do your research, you often come across interesting information about things you were not looking for. For example, in sifting through the minutes of the board meetings of the Review and Herald Publishing Association, I discovered that shortly after Ellen White’s death, the board decided to pay one-third of her funeral expenses. Ellen was in considerable debt when she died, and the cost of her funeral was a major problem for the family. After considerable discussion, it was decided to split the costs into several portions, with the publishing house contributing one third. I was totally surprised: imagine, the prophetess dies and then a discussion ensues about the cost of her funeral! Shortly thereafter, in those same minutes, I found a request from William White, Ellen’s son who was now going to have an important role in caring for her literary estate. He received a negative response when he asked for reimbursement for a new typewriter. It was believed that his activities were not so extensive that he needed one.

However, I was concerned with other things that were much more directly related to the subject of my dissertation. After I had been intensely busy for a few days, Haloviak came to me with a sizable box in his hands. “This is my 666 box,” he said. The box contained documentation on how the church had dealt with the explanation of the mysterious number 666, which we find in John’s Revelation. “This stuff hasn’t been catalogued yet,” he said. “Take a look at it, there’s bound to be something of your liking.” Indeed, that turned out to be the case. Among other things, I found the minutes of two church-appointed study committees that had tried, in vain, in the late 1930s to find historical support for the traditional explanation, namely that the number 666 refers to a title allegedly used by the pope: Vicarius Filii Dei. The conclusion was that this title could only be found in a forged medieval document, and that Adventist evangelists should no longer use their beloved explanation that “the number of the beast” refers to a papal title. Even though all experts agree with this conclusion, this sensational argument is still often used in evangelistic lectures and popular publications on the Revelation.

I was, of course, very grateful to Haloviak for his help with my research. The weeks in the archives proved to be a very fruitful few weeks. Unfortunately, he had not warned me beforehand that I had better not prepare coffee in the kitchen, which is next to the archives department. When I pulled out my pot of instant coffee and wanted to brew a cup of coffee, there was a loud protest from someone at the nearby Ellen G. White Estate-the department that still cares for Ellen White’s publications. Making coffee in this environment was apparently a mortal sin. But I gladly forgave Bert Haloviak for failing to warn me about this

Afterwards, during the years when I was the general secretary of the Trans-European Division of the Adventist Church, I was in frequent contact with Mary, Bert’s wife. She was the administrative assistant of the person in the headquarters office who was responsible for the relationship between the division and the General Conference. As general secretary, one of my tasks was to recruit missionaries for the countries that were at that time under our care—notably Pakistan, most of the Middle Eastern countries and newly “opened” Albania. I was in very frequent contact with Mary about this aspect of my work. To her, in particular, I express my condolences. I wish her strength, now that she has to go on without Bert. Her loss is of course infinitely greater than that of the many people who, like me, got to know Bert mainly because of his professional passion and his extensive knowledge. But they too miss him for the exceptionally fine human being he was.

Is God in control?

A few weeks ago, I was the guest speaker in Adventist Today‘s digital Sabbath School. Each week about 130 to 150 computers connect, with probably a total of about 200 participants. In the recent past I have made several presentations in this weekly seminar, that is always followed by an intense discussion. This time my topic was how we, as postmodern people, must read the Book of Revelation. I defended my belief that this last book of the Bible offers a panorama picture that is painted by the prophet. This is what we should focus on, rather than being concerned with applying all sorts of details to historical persons or events. John, under inspiration, articulates the meta-story of the great battle between good and evil, with ever-changing players. In that cosmic struggle, the church of Christ holds center stage. The faithful of God often go through difficult times, but all ends well! Christ overcomes, for and with his church. In my conclusion I indicated that we need have no fear because God is ultimately “in control” of everything.

During the discussion period this final comment, that God has everything “under control,” was questioned. Because, it was argued, we see a lot of things around us that put this in doubt. The person who raised this point said that speaking of God’s ‘control’ sounds far too Calvinistic. Calvinists point very emphatically to God’s sovereignty. We are small, sinful people and should not be so audacious that we take God to task and ask Him why He allows all kinds of things.

The fact that God is in control of everything and that nothing happens without his express will, or without Him consciously allowing it is, according to the questioner, at odds with our individual free will. A few days later he sent me the text of an article he had written on this subject. I read it with great interest. The author is Jack Hoehn, who is certainly worth listening to him. (Among other things, he wrote the book Adventist Tomorrow, subtitled Fresh Ideas While Waiting for Jesus, which was published by the Adventist Today organization and can be ordered through Amazon.) He comments on the concept of the great battle between good and evil. We know with absolute certainty who will win this battle, but that does not mean that at any moment, before the final battle has been fought, the Winner knows exactly how each stage of the battle will proceed on the way to the inevitable victory. For much, Hoehn says, depends on the enemy’s choices and strategies. In this sense, then, God is not always “in control” of everything.

Richard Rice, professor emeritus of the Divinity school at Loma Linda University, is an advocate of what he calls the “openness of God”. He argues that God knows everything as far as He can know it. Many things are still “open,” however, because God has given us a will of our own, and He gives us true freedom, and thus must wait to see how we will use it. Jack Hoehn suggests that we should not think and speak in terms of “control,” “omniscience” and “sovereignty,” but in terms of God’s love. We can be confident that God in his love has arranged everything in such a way that his ultimate purpose for the world, and for each of us personally, will be achieved. As long as we do not doubt that love–however incomprehensible it is at times–we are on the right track.

Team spirit

Few activities are more satisfying than visiting a good bookstore, picking out a few fine books, and then paying for the books at the checkout with book tokens. It is one of the things on my program for this week. On the occasion of my recent birthday, I received a good number of book tokens that are crying out to be spent. But I also received some books from people who know me well, and thus were able to choose something that matches my interests. One of these I read and enjoyed this past weekend. I can recommend this particular book to everyone. I am a lover of biographies and the giver was aware of that! The book in question is a biography of a physician in the Dutch city of Kampen, who became famous, mainly because of his part in the development of an artificial kidney, entitled: The man who saved millions of lives: Doctor Kolff – 1911-2009. The author is journalist Herman Broers and the book was published in 2018 by the Amsterdam publishing house Balans .

The book is the fascinating story of a man who in World War II managed to use the medical knowledge of himself and a group of Kamper medical colleagues to save the lives of a large number of people, whom the Germans wanted to take away for “Arbeitseinsatz” or worse. But from the very beginning of his career Kolff was obsessed with the idea that people with kidney failure could be helped if there would be a device that could remove the fatal surplus of urea from their blood.

Eventually, in the years after the war, there were too few opportunities in the Netherlands for this gifted man to realize the further development of his dialysis device. He moved with his family to the United States, where in time he became the main pioneer in the field of developing artificial hearts.

As I was reading, it occurred to me that this book could play an important role in leadership training. Not because Kolff was a perfect leader in alle respects, with an even temperament and impeccable interpersonal skills, but because he was an excellent team leader. Kolff worked with a team that eventually consisted of dozens (or even more) of people. What made Kolff a very special leader, was his ability to form a good team and enthuse it for long periods of time. In the early stages of his career he often paid his associates out of his own pocket. Very special was also his regular habit of meeting with his staff every morning for half an hour to keep each other informed of what everyone was doing. He knew that good communication was essential.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Kolff’s leadership qualities was that he gave other people on his team much of the credit when there was a breakthrough in their research or when a milestone was reached in the application of a device or instrument that they had developed together. When the first artificial heart, that Kolff and his team had developed, could be implanted, it was named after one of the collaborators who had an important part in the final stage of its development. It became not the Kofff-heart, but the Javik-7 heart. This attitude ran like a thread through Kolff’s career. Disappointments–and there were many of them–must be dealt with together, and successes were credited to the entire team!

This principle of good teamwork, in which all members of the team have the opportunity to develop their gifts and in which all share in the honor when something is successfully completed, is fundamental when it comes to good leadership. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and a big ego of the leader often demands that he/she receive all the credit. We see this in the realm of business, in the scientific world, but unfortunately also in the church environment. Even in local congregations and in ‘higher’ church organizations, leaders often take all the credit for themselves. And, surely, they ought to know better, because the great Leader, whom Christians claim they want to follow, has given them a very different example. Kolff was not a believer, but on that point he has been an example to many Christian leaders.

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.