Monthly Archives: January 2024

On being a Hero

Volodymir Oleksandrovych Zelensky is the 46-year-old president of Ukraine. In his earlier life he was a comedian and actor who played the role of president in a popular TV series. Seeing that his country was suffering from political chaos and deeply entrenched corruption, he ran for the presidency in the national elections. Zelensky won those elections with an overwhelming majority of 73 percent of the votes. He was installed on May 20, 2019 as the sixth president of the second largest country in Europe, with a population of some 44 million. Now, a few years later, he is widely admired for his courageous leadership in his war-torn country. He has become a national and international hero.

Examples of courage
Having courage is a synonym for being brave and daring, especially in moments when the stakes are high. The word courage has its root in the Latin word cor, which means heart. Showing courage means getting involved in a challenging activity with your whole heart, which leads people to do daring things, sometimes under arduous circumstances.

We recognize different categories of heroes—women and men who manifested an extraordinary amount of nerve. There are military and political heroes, but also persons with great courage in the spheres of philanthropy, culture, medicine, sports, and other fields. Moreover there are those who suddenly and unexpectedly become heroes when they are thrust into situations where they are called upon to act heroically to save others.

Among my heroes? Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the “lady with the lamp” who cared for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War; Rosa Parks (1913-2005), who was a catalyst for the American Civil Rights movement when she refused to give up her seat in a bus in Montgomery, Alabama; Amelia Earhart (1897-1939), the American female aviator who first flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Other moral heroes include Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela who fought back against racism in their countries; also, Oskar Schindler (1908-1974) and Henri Weidner (1912-1994), who saved thousands of Jewish lives in World War II. I could mention many names—heroism and courage are not as rare as some people want us to believe.

Courage and faith
The eleventh chapter in the biblical book of Hebrews is a gallery of heroes of faith. The list is diverse: Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Joseph, Hagar and Samson; Samuel, David, and Isaiah. The chapter makes for fascinating reading.

But there have also been many heroes of faith in post-biblical times. Like millions of others I watched with excitement and enormous admiration the 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge: the story of the conscientious objector Desmond Doss (1919-2006). As a medic who refused to bear arms, Doss saved 75 men during the battle for the Japanese island of Okinawa towards the end of World War II.

I don’t think I could ever muster such courage. Desmond Doss was undeniably a hero. As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, he was also a man of faith—but should we therefore see him primarily as a hero of faith? Or was he, after all, simply a war hero?

What is the relationship between faith and courage? There have been many courageous persons who will not get a slot in any modern sequel of Hebrews 11. They may have been genuine heroes but weren’t heroes of faith. These secular heroes can certainly inspire us, but most Christians will agree that the faith factor has often been an extra source of courage for them.

In Psalm 23 David confides that he relies on God when crisis situations arise:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (vs. 4, NIV).

We hear an echo of these words in one of the letters the apostle Paul wrote to the Christian congregation in the Greek city of Corinth:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Corinthians 1:3,4 NIV).

How to become a hero
How does this divine comfort work, and how does it relate to the courage to perform heroic deeds?

We should not expect to match the courage of people like Volodymir Oleksandrovych Zelensky or Desmond Doss overnight—or even in the long run. What we may hope for is that God will give us the courage to be sincere and honest in our everyday lives—even when that may not always seem expedient—and to bear witness to our faith. It takes courage to pray in a restaurant before a meal, to tell others about our faith, or to ask colleagues not to curse in our presence. God can and will give us that kind of courage if we ask Him for it.

We may find out if we have the courage to perform a truly heroic deed only when we land in an exceptional situation. Would I have the courage to jump into a deep canal to save a toddler from drowning? I don’t know. As I think about it at this moment, sitting at my desk, I wonder if it would be wise to do so. Am I a good enough swimmer? There’s a chance that such a heroic act on my part would only result in an additional casualty.

All I can do is pray that God will make it clear at critical moments what I should do. Who knows if He will give me the courage to become an unlikely hero at such a time?

Praying for heroism
In the Middle Ages, millions of Christians paid for their faith with their lives. Had I lived in those times, would I have climbed the stake with a psalm on my lips, as some were able to do?

Suppose that one day there would be a persecution of Christian believers in my part of the world. How courageous would I be? Would I be able to remain steadfast in my faith even if it required a high price? The only answer to that question is to pray to God each day for the strength to face the challenges of that particular day.

However, praying for courage for ourselves is not enough. More than ever before we need to pray for the peacemakers in this world, that they may have the courage to raise their voices against violence and hate. Christians around the world should pray that political leaders will have the courage to stand up against immoral dictators like Putin and Kim Jong Un, and also to protest against another presidential term of such a deeply flawed person like Donald Trump, and to resist populist nationalistic leaders in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Courage is also an essential ingredient for church leaders, at every administrative level, and that includes our Adventist church leaders. Being courageous and doing what is right even when it is highly unpopular may come at a high price. It may result in being marginalized, not being re-elected, or even being fired. Courage is needed, too, for church employees to speak up when they see injustice—and not just when we’re retired!

Leaders in local congregations must be courageous enough to change the things in their church that need changing, and to make their congregation truly inclusive. We need leaders at the conference and union level who have the courage to chart their own course when biblical and moral principles are at stake. And leaders at the highest echelons must have the courage to disagree with colleagues and superiors when their conscience demands this.

All of which is just to say that the church needs courageous leaders, who (as Ellen White wrote) will be as true to duty as the needle to the pole; men [and women] who will stand for the right though the heavens fall (Education, p. 57).

Heroes are not perfect
I suspect most of us feel we’re unworthy even to stand in the shadow of the great women and men we encounter in history books, as well as in the Bible. But remember: like us, most heroes are far from perfect people.

That was certainly also true of biblical heroes. Noah had a drinking problem. Jacob cheated his disabled father. David had sex with someone else’s wife.

We may have less dramatic deficiencies of character and conduct, and may also have good reasons to wonder whether we are equipped with a the ingredients for heroism. This is all the more reason to pray daily for courage to deal with all the small (and possibly big) challenges that may come on our path.

You and I may doubt whether we will ever become real heroes, but our faith tells us that God can give us the courage we need at a particular moment. Therefore, You who place your hope in the Lord: be all strong and keep courage (Psalm 31:24, NIV).

Can 2024 be the year of de-escalation?

On Tuesday mornings I can usually be found in the basement of the office of the Netherlands Union of Seventh-day Adventists. I am one of a small number of volunteers who are steadily working on building and optimizing the denominational archive in our country. Documents from the past are sorted, categorized, described, and stored in folders and document boxes. When we have finalize a particular period the boxes goes to the Provincial Archives in Utrecht, where the storage conditions are optimal and where interested parties can consult it.
Recently I worked my way through a thick stack of documents that in one way or another were related to the activities of the Dutch Union Office at the time when the World Congress of the Church was held in Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1995. Much of it could be discarded, such as, for example, the correspondence of delegates from around the world, who sought the assistance of our church office in securing a visa for entry into the Netherlands. But there are also minutes of meetings and significant letters that must be preserved. After all, this was the most important Adventist meeting that ever took place in the Netherlands, and the church organization in the Netherlands was very much involved.

Working in the archive we come across items that may not be of real historical importance, but still shed light on certain aspects of who and what Adventists are. For example, I found a letter that had been faxed to the Dutch Union, with copies to a sizable group of individuals and church entities. Among those who received a copy I also saw my own name. In 1995, prior to the GC session, I was working in the church’s regional office for much of Europe (the so-called Trans-European Division), as the person responsible for, among other things, communications.What was the letter about? It had come to the attention of the General Conference that pastor C.E. van der Ploeg, the person responsible in the Dutch church for the communications department, had put a warning in a bulletin for the Dutch church members, which stated that, if they visited the conference in Utrecht, they would have to do without their cup of coffee or tea. He warned the Dutch Adventists that the organizers of the session had made sure that there would be no coffee on sale in the congress building. Upon finding out about this, the GC people decided that they needed to send a complaint to the division office in England. They were clearly very upset about this statement in the bulletin. After all, the Dutch union was supposed to be positive about the church’s attempts to keep such toxic substances as coffee and tea away from the saints at the session. The president of the division (Dr. Jan Paulsen) was supposed to do something but did not want to see this matter escalating into something big. He sent a letter to the Dutch Union (which will be preserved for posterity) to convey the complaint from the GC. He regretted that van der Ploeg had written about this topic, as this would only generate ill feelings. He added that the message to the Dutch church members was completely unnecessary, because he was in no doubt that Dutch Adventists would need no advice where, if they need their national drink, they can find a place to satisfy that need.

Unfortunately, I cannot remind my friend van der Ploeg of this incident, for he is no longer with us. I don’t know whether pastor Paulsen remembers it, but I treasure it as a small but striking example of his gift for de-escalating problems. A small injection of humor was usually part of that process. I am convinced that this combination of (1) an ability to de-escalating smaller and larger conflicts and (2) humor, are crucial qualities of a good leader. I have, in my own way, always tried to operate in this way.

Unfortunately, at present in many of our leaders—at various levels in our denomination—are sadly missing the willingness, and perhaps also the capability—to de-escalate conflict situations. In recent years we have experienced how several issues have continued to escalate without any solution in sight. I am not referring to activities of some of the so-called independent ministries at the conservative fringe of the church—even though some of these seem to consider it part of their mission to foster the polarization in our church. But a number of conflicts have escalated, due to the determination of the church’s top leadership to promote one particular view and condemn variant opinions.

The issues concerning women’s ordination and the status of LGBTQ+ members come to mind as prime examples in which escalation resulted from the pressures from the higher echelons of our denominational bureaucracy to stay with the status quo, and from the publication of several uncompromising statements. In many cases these statements had a fundamentalist odor, and failed to take note of the findings of contemporary science and of the breadth of theological expertise in the Adventist Church. The conflict about the role and status of female pastors escalated to the point that a special “compliance” committee was established. This committee was set up to discipline conferences and unions that were unwilling to submit to the dictates of the GC with regard to the women in their organization who felt called—and had given ample proof of their calling—to the gospel ministry. A special task force has recently been established in an attempt to halt the growing willingness of many congregations to accept LGBTQ+ people as fully part of their church community. A few weeks ago a new website has been launched to convince those want their church to be truly inclusive to change their “liberal” minds. But even if I try to look at these things from a “conservative” perspective, it seems to me that these measures only heighten the conflicts and will have very little, if any success, in creating solutions.

Lately there has been an intensified emphasis from “on high” on the importance of assent to every detail of the Twenty-eight Fundamental Beliefs. I am willing to believe that this concern is based on a genuine conviction that the church is at risk of losing its identity, if the growing theological diversity cannot be reversed and greater doctrinal uniformity cannot be achieved. However, the controversies around this issue have regrettably further escalated as the result of repeated assertions that all pastors and teachers who do not subscribe to all doctrines of the church (as they are formulated by the GC and are interpreted by conservative opinion leaders), had better turn in their credentials. Recent events, such as the withdrawal of teaching credentials from a theology professor at our Italian university, and the pressure on the German church to cancel the ministerial credentials of a pastor who informed his church that he has a bisexual orientation, have all the seeds in them to escalate into major conflicts.

One may well ask why church leaders have not tried harder to decrease polarization and de-escalate tensions in the church. There have been possibilities to do so. There was the option to allow different regions in the world to deal with the matter of women’s ordination at their own speed, while taking cultural factors into account. And: the church has succeeded in dealing with the issue of divorce by focusing on pastoral rather than theological aspects. Could that not serve as a model for approaching various aspects of the LGBTQ+ dilemma?

Some will argue that Truth must be defended—at whatever cost. We are told that when principles are involved, one cannot compromise! We must accept that things may easily escalate if biblical truth is being attacked or ignored. This may cause controversy, and people may decide to turn their back on the church. If that happens, it is the expected end-time “shaking”. It is inevitable if we want to ensure that there will be a faithful remnant ready to welcome the Lord when He returns.

I agree that Truth is important and that principles cannot simply be pushed aside when they do not suit us. But we must remember that what we call Truth is actually our interpretation of the truths that we have distilled from the Scriptures. We must acknowledge that this side of the Second Coming all our knowing is in part (1 Cor. 13:9) and what may appear crystal-clear to some of us is actually always “a reflection in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12). That should make our leaders far more modest in claiming that their perspective is absolutely and totally correct. Moreover, we must realize that compromise is not by definition a dirty word in the Christian vocabulary. Love—consideration for others—must guide us to put our principles into practice in a way that builds our faith community.

When all is said and done, the principle of love must prevail, as Paul emphasized in his magistral description of agape-love in 1 Corinthians 13. At the beginning of a new year I hope and pray that all those in our church who are in leadership roles—at all levels—will do everything possible to break down the barriers that exist in their realm of influence; that they will decide to reach out rather than condemn, and can step over their own shadow; in one word: that their goal will be to de-escalate. Let the year 2024 be the year of pulling together. Of showing that, in all our diversity of opinion and action, we belong together. De-escalation must be our constant aim, and love and peace must take precedence over everything else, including our limited understanding of truth.