Am I truly happy?

From time to time I ask myself the question: ‘Am I truly happy?’ For a Dutchman this should be an easy question. According to the World Happiness Report of 2019 (published by a department of the United Nations), which provides a ranking of 156 countries, the Netherlands takes fifth place among the happiest countries in the world (after Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland). In this report happiness is measured by looking at such factors as material well-being, social cohesion, life expectancy and freedom of choice.

So, I should count myself lucky to have been born in the Netherlands. Our prime-minister consistently emphasizes that we live in a marvelous country and that we should take good care of it. That may be the case, but, as I wrote in my previous blog, this marvelous country has some 38,000 homeless people. That is as many people as the number of inhabitants of a fair-sized provincial town. According to recent data the number of people that receive a monthly social security check is still just over 800,000 (almost 4,5% of the population). In a major speech our minister of finances stated last week that even many middle-income families are only one defect washing machine away from major financial disarray. [I sometimes wonder how I should interpret such data, when I see an explosive increase on the number of restaurants, and notice how more and more fellow-Dutchmen can afford two or three vacations per year.]

But, let’s go back to the question with which I began this blog. Am I a happy person? The answer depends one how I define happiness. In any case, I am not ‘perfectly’ happy in the sense that I do not have any problems; that I can fulfil all my material desires; that all my social relationships function optimally; that I am just as energetic as I was twenty years ago; that all my projects are one hundred percent successful and that there is never a day when, for some reason or another, I feel rather depressed.

However, I must admit that the world in which I live is not really a happy place. During the past few weeks I have been confronted several times with the finality of life and with the fact that there is an awful lot of sickness all around me. Moreover, there is major political unrest in the world. Examples abound. Just to mention a few the United Kingdom, Hongkong, Jemen and the Middle East (even though we tend to forget about that part of the world, since there has seldom been a time without serious trouble). Hurricane Dorian has left of wide swath of devastation on the Bahamas and (as I write these lines), continues to threaten parts of the coast of the Southeastern United States. No, seen from this perspective, our world does not appear to be very happy.

Nonetheless, when asked whether I am a happy person, I can respond positively. I have now been ‘happily’ married for almost 55 years. We have two good children and have been blessed with two nice grandkids. I still enjoy reasonably good health. I can look back on an interesting career with much variation. I continue to be involved with various meaningful projects. And my Christian faith provides me with a solid basis of meaning.

As we seek to define ‘happiness’, we should perhaps first of all let us be inspired by the beatitudes which Christ spoke as part of his ‘sermon on the Mount’. This helps us to discover that true ‘happiness’ is directly linked to contentment, gratitude, acceptance, having our focus on what is good and true. Happiness is found in trusting that we have our place on God’s world. Happiness, therefore, is first and foremost a hopeful confidence that, even when at times life is tough and brings us a lot of unhappiness, we are in the care of a loving power that lifts us beyond ourselves and the things that may trouble us. Those who do not believe this will have to be content with a very superficial kind of happiness—a bubble that can burst at any time.

Homeless in Holland

Last week the Dutch media reported that, according to the national bureau for statistics (CBS) the number of homeless people in the Netherlands has doubled in the past ten years. At present 39,000 people (mostly men) live on the streets. The categories of men between the ages of 18 and 30 , and of men with a non-western migration background are, In particular, overrepresented. Many organizations found these numbers extremely shocking, and the responsible government official promptly promised to give the matter his immediate attention. Yet, a week later, the news has already receded into the background. But it kept coming back in my mind. How can it be that in one of the richest countries on earth we do no succeed in giving everyone a roof over his/her head? I know that there are shelters where the homeless can stay for a limited period of time, but these are overfull and do not provide a lasting solution. The Salvation Army is active in this area, but I do not see many other Christian organizations that have made care for homeless people a top priority.

For me this is something I cannot easily set aside. Likewise, it is difficult for me to pass a beggar without some feeling of embarrassment and guilt. A few days ago I once again spent some time in Brussels and I am always struck by the relatively large number of beggars on the streets of that city. I usually give them one or two euros. It also happens occasionally that I do not give, but then return to leave a few coins. I know all the arguments why one should not give—but I realize that there are always among these beggars some persons who have very few options if they want to stay alive: it is either a matter of stealing or begging.

As I write this blog I remember an experience in Greece. It was during a tour of senior church members from the Netherlands, with me as the tour leader. During our time in Greece we went to church in Athens. I had been invited to take the sermon that morning. I preached in English and was translated into Greek. Our hotel was just a few blocks away from the Adventist church building. I decided to explore things on Friday evening and walked to the church. In front of the main entrance I found six homeless men who were clearly addicts. When I made some enquiries, I learned that this was their habitual sleeping place. However, every Saturday morning they were forced to leave and the needles and other evidences of their presence were cleared away. I wondered why these people were not given a place in the church building, where there seemed to be ample room. Of course, I understood the arguments of the elder of the church, when I asked him about this. He told me that giving shelter to these people was not a good idea. Some members would no longer come to church, and parents with children would not want to have their children confronted with drug use, etc.

Had I been responsible for the use of the church facilities in Athens I would probably have come to the same conclusion. But as I write this paragraph the question emerges once again: What is our Christian responsibility towards people who, whether or not through their own faults, find themselves at the margins of our society.

I admit (albeit with a degree of uneasiness and guilt) that it is not a realistic option to invite a homeless person to come and stay with us in our home, and also that there are lots of practical problems in making some parts of a church building available for sheltering some homeless people. However, there must be something that we can do as a faith community. Could we not start a shelter for homeless people somewhere in the country? No doubt, there are some subsidies available that would make such a project financially viable. When in 1933 (at a time when our denomination in Holland was much smaller) the church leaders saw a need for a home for orphans and other children that needed a roof over their head, Children Home’ Zonheuvel’ was started. If such a project was feasible in 1933, why would starting a home for the homeless not be feasible in 2019?

And, maybe, there is still another way to make a modest contribution towards solving the Dutch problem of the homeless. It would seem to me that helping the homeless would be a very relevant project for ADRA-Netherlands, possibly in support of other organizations with a similar goal. I am sure this would appeal to many Dutch ADRA donors!

Why a meeting 1919 was so important

Dr. Michael Campbell has done the Seventh-day Adventist Church a great service with his newest book: 1919—The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism (Pacific Press Publ. Ass., 2019). Campbell, who recently returned from mission service in the Phlippines and joined the theology faculty at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas (USA), has filled an important gap in our knowledge of the love affair of the Adventist Church with Fundamentalism. The book describes how this love relationship did not always retain the same fervor, and telss the story of why and how many Adventist scholars, church leaders and members in the pew, continued to feel attracted to the main tenets of the fundamentalist movement.

One of the most important events in Adventist history, that has had a major impact on the Adventist view of inspiration, was a Bible Conference in 1919. Important though this meeting was, it was soon largely forgotten and the transcripts of the meetings strangely disappeared—either by accident or on purpose—and remaioned lost until they were re-discovered in the General Conference archives in 1974. Knowledge about the content of these transcripts became public when Dr. Molleurus Couperus published parts of them in the May 1979 issue of Spectrum. (I met dr. Couperus several times when he visited his elderly mother, who was a member of a small church in the Northern part of the Netherlands. I was pastoring there at the very beginning of my career in the church. Dr. Couperus was of Dutch descent. I remember playing an occasional game of chess with his mother, a delightful, spirited old lady.)

The segments of the transcripts of the 1919 Conference that Spectrum published focused on the inspiration of Ellen White. She had died just a few years earlier and the denominational leaders and college professors had to define the nature of the prophet’s inspiration, and to come to a consensus about the continuing authority of her writings. I vividly remember how, when I first read this Spectrum article in 1979, I was struck by the ‘modern’ questions the participants at the 1919 Bible conference were asking. While some maintained that the ‘fundamentalists’ were correct in defending verbal inspiration, with its characteristics of inerrancy and infallibility, others (some of the key-leaders among them) rejected this conservative view of inspiration. When speaking about the work of Ellen White they maintained that Ellen White herself had never claimed that her work was correct in every historical and theological detail, and that she quite openly used a multitude of other sources in her writings.

It was recognized by those who wanted to portray a more realistic view of Ellen White and her work that many of the church members tended to be very ‘fundamentalist’ in their opinion of Ellen White and would be shocked when they heard ‘the truth’. Although some—as for instance the General Conference president, A.G. Daniels—emphasized the need of educating the church members, this did not happen in any serious way through official church channels. It is noteworthy that in 1979 it was an independent Adventist journal that published parts of the newly discovered transcripts of the 1919 Conference.

In recent years the church has been more open than in the past in recognizing some of the ‘hot’ issues regarding the person and work of Ellen G. White.  I do not think that today Ronald Numbers would have been fired by the church for publishing his Prophetess of Health, in which he showed how much Ellen White was indebted to the ideas of other health reformers of her time. Nonetheless, most of the new information about the life and work of Ellen White still comes through non-denominational media. More even than in the 1919-era there is a need of informing the church at large about the things that have been uncovered. This will not deny the contribution Ellen White has made to Seventh-day Adventism. But it will dispel myths that have been passed on for too long. These have strengthened many in a mistaken belief in the infallibility of Ellen White and, just as unfortunately, have also led many to lose confidence in her work and to turn away from her. Only total openness will ensure that church members will continue to read and interpret her writings in such a way that it will build their faith and that they will continue to appreciate her role in past and present Adventism.

Fake news

Dealing with history is never fully objective. Writing about the past always requires a selection of the facts. Moreover, the historian will always view these facts from a particular perspective. And the reader of the product of the historian reads through his own, usually colored, lenses. Therefore, any student of history does well, if at all possible, to consult various sources.

The fact that history is always characterized by a certain degree of subjectivity does not, however, mean that is therefore defensible to consciously alter the facts and to select them in such a way that a totally warped picture is created of what happened. In that case we are confronted with the falsification of history and that is an ugly matter.

But even when we try to describe the present, a degree of subjectivity is unavoidable. Most things that happen around us are so complex that this also forced us to be selective in our descriptions. And, also here, much depends on the perspective from which we view things. Usually it makes quite a difference whether our political leanings are more to the right or more to the left. Aspects like gender and ethnicity, religion and culture, also impact on the way we see events that happen far-away and nearby. However, we enter the dubious realm of ‘fake’ news when there is a conscious effort to ignore certain relevant facts and to enlarge and color other things, with the clear intent to mislead people and by manipulating “fake” information in such a way that particular pre-planned objectives are reached. Sad to say that nowadays this type of news delivery and communication has become a common phenomenon.

The processes which are at work in the descripting of the past and in reporting on the present are not limited to the world of the secularl media (including the social media) but are also seen elsewhere. Even in the world of the church it is difficult (or maybe impossible) to be fully objective. I remember a statement made by a theology professor at Andrews University in the middle of the 1960’s about the official journal of the worldwide Adventist Church: the Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald. (The name was later shortened to Adventist Review.) This professor said that a regular reader of this Adventist journal would have to conclude that everything in the Adventist Church is OK; that only good things happen in the church and that nothing ever goes wrong. At the time I was rather surprised by this critique but after a little thought I could only agree. Since that time things have improved. Recent books about the history of our church have become much more professional and critical. Even today the church’s media often tend to sound a hallelujah note, but it must be said that they no longer avoid all problems and all challenges the church is faces. Nonetheless, it remains advisable to consult various sources and non-official media such as Spectrum and Adventist Today are a welcome (and necessary) complement to the official news channels. For, unfortunately, it must be said that even today at times the church’s media remain silent about controversial issues and tendencies in the church, or paint such a one-sided picture that it can only be characterized as “fake” news.

Now, it is rather easy to point an accusing finger at others and to forget that most (or all?) of us may at times be guilty of spreading some “fake” news. We tend to be subjective in the stories we tell of what we have experienced and in the way we talk about individuals and groups of people. We all come with our own bagage, which colors our opinion, and we most often do not possess all the facts. That is why it is usually not wise to just listen to one version of a story. But it becomes a very nasty thing when we consciously give a story a certain twist in order to mislead others. It is good to once in a while give this serious thought and ask ourselves if we perhaps at times, either consciously or unwittingly, may have been guilty in passing on “fake” news.

Speaking up against evil

Adventist Professional Ministersis is one of the Facebook groups that I follow regularly. A few days ago Dr. Nicholas Miller, (a professor at Andrews University with a background in law and theology) started a discussion about the question how pastors in their preaching might address some of the moral dilemma’s that are currently hotly debated in the United States. How might they do this in a way that respects the separation between church and state? Whenever, in the USA, one speaks about the glaring inequality between rich and poor, the increasing influence of Islam, racial hatred or the refugee problem (or not to mention gun control, the LGBTI-issue and the controversy concerning climate change), one inevitably enters domains where Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided. A pastor who speaks about such topics from his/her pulpit will have people in the pews who belong to either political party. Some of them are great admirers of Donald Trump, but others believe this president is not just a danger for the future of America but even a threat for the entire world. It is no secret that Adventists in the United States are just as heavily polarized on all these issues as is the population in general. I have learned from experience during visits to the United States (and mixing with American Adventists) that I must be rather guarded in my criticisms of the president, since many do not appreciate any negative words about their commander-in-chief. And I have been utterly amazed to find, even among Adventist friends whom I highly respect, a lot of resistance against a type of universal health care coverage that, since a considerable time, has proven to function quite well in a number of European countries (among those my own country). When this approach is labeled ‘socialist’, it surely betrays a definition of socialism that differs significantly from that of most people in Western-Europe.

However, perhaps first a few words about the separation between church and state, since many people will refer to the need for absolute separation between church and state, as soon as dilemmas are brought to the table that also have political dimensions. It should be pointed out that there are different ways in which the relationship between church and state can be arranged. The important thing is that church and state must both be able to function well in their own sphere and that all faith communities share in the same rights and duties. Americans will often claim that their country has realized a full separation between church and state, but looking at it as a European I am not so sure. Whenever I visit a church across the big pond, I see, to my amazement, a national flag on the podium. And I wonder why there is no protest when the president ends his speeches with the words: ‘God bless America!’ And how is it that American leaders will host ‘prayer breakfasts’ and that the Senate has a ‘chaplain’? I could mention many more things that make me wonder. And, certainly, the close contact between the president and some evangelical leaders does not seem to fit into a model of total separation between church and state. Or do I miss something?

But this may be as it is. Let’s go back to the prophetic role of the pastor in the pulpit. The studies of our Sabbath School quarterly of the current quarter remind us of the prophetic role of all Christ’s followers—and, thus, most certainly also of church leaders, at every level and most specifically at the level of the local church. Injustice and evil must be addressed in the light of the gospel. A Christian is called to protest against all evil in society and to do all he/she can to help eliminate this evil.

This does not just apply to the United States. I must admit that also in the Netherlands, the country where I live, we find racist tendencies and there are right-wing radical groups that flaunt their islamophobia and/or homophobia (sometimes in addition to their antisemitism). In the Netherlands also the material prosperity is very unequally distributed (not as badly as in the USA, but nonetheless . . .). Regrettably, we also find far too many church-going Christians who do not want to accept refugees into their community and would gladly see all assistance to developing countries halted tomorrow.

So, where does that leave me as a minister of the gospel? I will have to try to translate the gospel into the concrete situation of the society in which I live. I must have the courage to call evil by its name, even though this means that I fiercely disagree with some political parties and some popular opinion leaders. I realize that, in so doing, I will offend some (many?) church members, whether or not I will mention particular political movements or persons by name. In extreme cases this may mean that some members decide to leave the church, or, in any case, will stay home when I am scheduled as the preacher. Yet, this may not stop me from proclaiming the values of God’s kingdom loudly and clearly. In an ever more polarized environment this presents an enormous challenge. It may cause some to accuse us of violating the separation between church and state. So be it. To remain silent when hatred is being promoted, when large ethnic or racial groups are seriously discriminated against, when the rich become ever richer and the poor ever poorer, and when large groups of people in the margins of our society are overlooked, is no option. It truly is no option when we decide to take God’s Word seriously with regard to love for our neighbors, equality for all, justice and righteousness. I wish my colleagues, everywhere—and especially in the USA—a lot of courage and wisdom from on high!