The two windows of Sister Bertken

I had heard the name of Sister Bertken but knew little about her. That changed when I attended a meeting of the Dutch Society for Church History, where the program was a lecture about Sister Bertken. It was a fascinating story.

Sister Bertken was born in 1457 as the illegitimate daughter of Jacob van Lichtenberg, a prominent member of the clergy in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Being the child of a priest was no reason for shame in the late Middle Ages; in all likelihood, Sister Bertken grew up in the home of her father, and received a good education.

Around 23 she entered a convent in preparation for an even more ardent life as a follower of Jesus. She used the money she had inherited to have a cell built adjacent to the Buurkerk, one of the large churches in Utrecht. There she lived for 57 years as a recluse.

Sister Bertken chose a minimalist lifestyle. During the 57 years in her cell, she wore a coarse hairy garment on her naked body, and always was barefoot. She never ate meat or dairy products. Her daily life was structured around the seven prayers which she recited at the prescribed times. She wrote some booklets and a number of hymns, and was the first woman in the Netherlands whose writing appeared in print. She spent the major part of her time copying manuscripts.

Sister Bertken was not the only woman in this era who opted for a life in the isolation of a “cluse” adjacent to a major church. Around that time there were as many as two hundred such women who chose to be locked into a cell, to spend their lives in prayer and meditation in a kind of one-person convent.

Two windows

Sister Bertken’s cell was about 3 by 4 meters. It probably had a small door so that someone could enter with food and take away her chamber pot.

The main feature of her extremely basic abode, which had no heating, was that it had two windows. One window gave a view of the interior of the church, from which she could participate in the holy mass and observe the dynamic of a medieval basilica, which was—to put it mildly—a rather lively affair.

On the other side of her cell was a window that could be opened to the outside world. At set times Sister Bertken was available for pastoral counseling and prayers for passers-by, who could include prominent citizens and even members of the higher clergy. Over time, she gained the reputation of being not only a pious but also a wise woman.

This feature of the two windows was perhaps what struck me most. Religious commitment has a dual vision: a clear view of the church and worship, as well as a clear view on what occurs in the world among those we encounter.

Total commitment

If I were asked to choose one way to characterize the life of Sister Bertken, it would be “total commitment.”

These two words remind me of a remarkable episode in the history of the Adventist Church. In 1997 Robert S. Folkenberg, the president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, pushed for the adoption of a document that expressed the idea of total commitment. Initially this was targeted at the educational branch of the church, but eventually it was broadened to include all levels of church administration and departmental branches.

The final paragraph caused considerable protest. It indicated that there was to be some agency to regularly assess the state of this commitment. The document eventually became Policy A 15 in the General Conference Working Policy, “Total Commitment to God. A Declaration of Spiritual Accountability in the Family of Faith.” You can read it by clicking this link.

There is much in this “declaration” that I agree with. Other parts of it make me uneasy. Why did this statement get the status of a policy? Why does Adventism want to package so many things as “policies”? Is commitment to God not first of all a personal confession of faith rather than a policy that is prescribed by ecclesial authorities?

What also struck me was how this Folkenberg-era commitment is linked to the administrative and organizational structure of the church. Is the church’s administrative structure really the backbone of religious commitment? And why is religious commitment a community statement rather than a personal pledge?

Sadly, Elder Folkenberg, the initiator of this declaration of “total commitment,” had to withdraw prematurely from his leadership role when it became clear that his own commitment to Christian integrity was far from “total.” And isn’t this kind of personal commitment, after all, what counts?

A balanced commitment

I see four elements in Sister Bertken’s total commitment. It was:

aimed at serving people; and
Sister Bergen’s commitment to her faith was certainly connected with her church. Her daily program was embedded in the prayer practices of her time. She chose to avail herself of the opportunity to live in a small cell that was built against the outer wall of a church.

Yet her chosen lifestyle was also highly personal: a life of simplicity and isolation, without being a part of the church’s organizational structure. It seems to me that her commitment manifested a wonderful balance of personal piety and religious culture.

Among today’s Christians (Adventists included), this balance is frequently missing. Too often, in our age of individualism, religious commitment misses the embedment in the rich heritage of the Christian faith. And, on the other hand, it is all too common that religious commitment depends on being organized and given corporate form by denominational organizations.

Two windows, revisited

The two windows in Sister Bertken’s cell are symbolic of the dual nature of her commitment. They represent the horizontal and the vertical aspect of serving God. Through one of her windows she was linked to the worship and rituals of the church: the preaching of the Word, the prayer and praise of fellow-believers. Through that window she watched the eucharist, baptisms, weddings and funerals.

But through the other window she saw everyday life in the outside world. She saw ox-drawn carts, horses, stray dogs, beggars. She saw commerce, children playing, elderly men and women of all walks of life. She saw priests and nuns and everything that was part of medieval life.

Through the one window she talked with God and listened to others communicating with God. Through the other window she listened to the people who came to her with their problems, who told her of their challenges and sufferings, and who asked her for prayer and for counsel.

True Christianity is vertical and horizontal

To blend these two aspects has been a challenge for the church—for some denominations more than for others. Some religious movements maintain that preaching the gospel is the only reason for the existence of the church. Social work may be important but can best be left to non-religious organizations. Nothing should take the place of leading people to the truth!

Other denominations emphasize a “social gospel” so much that the story of the cross and the resurrection of Christ gets obscured.

I know Adventist congregations that have found a balance between the vertical and the horizontal. But I also know of congregations where the only question is: “What can we tell you?” without bothering to ask “What can we do for you?” Too much of what we Adventists do misses true altruism. and is simply part of a member-recruitment program.

At the same time, I have wondered whether ADRA and our hospital systems could do more to emphasize that they are faith-based entities.

The long-term

Sister Bertken’s ministry has yet another message for the church, which happens to also be a very personal message for me: she was blessed with a long life, and persevered for 57 in her cloistered ministry. As I listened to her story, I wondered whether she was ever tempted to leave her cell, start a family, and start a normal life. But no, she persevered in her calling.

Perseverance in commitment, a project, or an ideal is not a strong point in our postmodern western culture. In my church career I have shifted my focus a number of times from one ministry to another. I sometimes wonder: Could I have been more productive if I had stayed longer with a particular ministry?

For example, do we move pastors around too frequently, without giving them the opportunity to really become part of the community of the people entrusted to their pastoral care? Are too many pastors too eager to leave local ministry for administrative offices, where they can travel around as experts on what they’re no longer doing themselves?

The Adventist Church is constantly adopting new strategies, new projects, and new programs, while missing the patience to carefully analyze the results. The Adventist Church thinks in terms of short cycles. The mantra “time is short” constantly echoes in our spiritual ears. We have never learned to think in terms of long-term trends and developments. Think what difference it could have made had we looked at what could be accomplished in the next 20-30 years, rather than just until the next General Conference session!

Yes, Sister Bertken was a Roman Catholic, which may lead Adventists to reject her as a role model. (The Catholic Church was the only Christian church in the city where she lived, as Luther and Calvin had not yet split the church into different segments.) Can we still honor her as a Christian who demonstrated “total commitment”?

Why are Christians So Fearful?

I don’t scare easily, but I recall like yesterday how terrified I was.

It happened in the mid-1980s when I worked in Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon, about 250 kilometers from the coast. I was the manager of the Imprimerie Adventiste, the denominational publishing house and printing plant for the French-speaking part of Africa. That day I had gone for some business to Douala—the port city at a 40-minute flight from where I lived. When I had finished my mission and returned to the airport, I missed the last flight of the day back home.

I had no desire to spend the night in a hotel, so I decided to look for a cab. I bargained with a driver, offered him half of what he asked—and with that he was more than content. We began the journey of about 4 hours. Soon we were outside the port city of Douala, where the jungle began. It was pitch black.

Then, totally unexpectedly, the driver reduced speed and turned into a narrow, dark forest path.

“Don’t worry,” he said.

But I did. “What are you doing,” I shouted. “Go back.” He drove on for about a kilometer. I did not know what to do. This is not going to end well, I thought.

But then, there was a small shack. The driver stopped the cab. Inside the shack were several barrels of gas. From one of the barrels he filled his tank. He then explained that an uncle of his worked as a truck driver for Shell. He transported barrels of gas, and every now and then a barrel just happened to fall off his truck…

I breathed a sigh of relief—but I had never been so scared.

There was one other time when I was also very afraid—but that was a very different kind of fear. It was when I had just heard the diagnosis of prostate cancer. What did that mean? What treatment options did I have?

Both times it ended well. I came home in one piece that night after a long drive through the forest. And I was declared “clean” after a successful prostate cancer treatment and the necessary check-ups.

Diffferent kinds of fear
I think it’s safe to say that we all have experiences of fear. There is a long list of phobias that can make life quite uncomfortable. Topping the list of most frequent phobias in the United States are arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). These kinds of anxieties are followed by a fear of heights and a fear of flying. Claustrophobia (panic when being in an enclosed space), agoraphobia (entering open or crowded places) and mysophobia (extreme fear of germs) are also high on the phobia list.

While each of these phobias can be experienced as a major impediment, other sorts of anxiety appear to cut even deeper into the human soul. The cry of anguish of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch receives a piercing echo in the fear for the future of countless men and women.

Will there perhaps, before too long, be another world war, this time fought with nuclear weapons? Will there be enough food and clean water on our planet for a growing population? And what about our personal future? Many fear for their own physical wellbeing, or fear the loss of their partner, or are afraid their children will make wrong choices. Elderly people fear the moment they can no longer drive, or detect the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease and the onset of dementia.

And, whether we acknowledge it or not: most of us fear death.

Faith and fear
Through the prophetic voice of Isaiah God told his people of old:

Fear not, for I am with you; look not anxiously, for I am your God. I strengthen you, also I help you, also I sustain you with My holy right hand! (Isaiah 41:10).

These words were not only directed to the prophet’s contemporaries but also to God’s people in our day and age.

But are all Christians—and more specifically: all Seventh-day Adventist believers—able to repeat with confidence the words of Psalm 56:12: “In God I trust, fear I know not, what can any man do to me?” Unfortunately, that is not the case.

The faith of many—maybe most—Christians is mixed with fear. And that is not as it should be, for the gospel is not a doomsday message but is “euangelion” or “good news.” It is about love, salvation, deliverance, forgiveness, freedom and peace in Christ, and eternal life. Jesus underlined this with his famous statement: “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:1).

Jesus was not referring to being afraid in the dark, or to the fear of flying. And He did not speak of depressions and the kind of anxieties that may require the help of a therapist. Jesus comforted his disciples, who were afraid that the entire kingdom-story would end in a fiasco. He was speaking of things for which theologian Paul Tillich coined the term ultimate concern.

The judgment
I once had a conversation with a physician who for a number of years had worked as a family practitioner in a small town in the Dutch Bible Belt. At least half of the area where he worked belongs to denominations of a very conservative variety of Calvinism, with the doctrine of double predestination as an essential aspect of their faith. They are convinced that, from all eternity, God has already decided who will go to heaven and who will eternally burn in hell.

The doctor told me he was not a believer, but that he had been very surprised to meet so many patients who were frightened to die. He asked me: “Should people who believe in the message of the Bible not face death without any fear?”

Many Seventh-day Adventists live in fear of the judgment. They do not fear the eternally burning hell fire, since Adventists have, from early on, accepted the doctrine of annihilationism: the second death. But our teachings about judgment have caused many to doubt whether they can ever be sure of their salvation.

The obsession with perfection has jeopardized the spiritual life of too many of us. It has imprisoned believers in a cage of legalism, with the constant fear that there may be sins that have not been forgiven, shortcomings perhaps unwittingly overlooked, and so never confessed.

The heresy of last generation theology has hundreds of thousands of church members worldwide in its nefarious grip, leaving them wondering whether they are worthy to belong to the small remnant that will eventually make it to the kingdom.

The investigative judgment
The investigative judgment teaching in particular has robbed Adventist believers of inner peace.

After the “disappointment” of 1844 the doctrine emerged that, since that date, a pre-Advent judgment has been in sessions, during which “the books” are meticulously inspected. This “investigative judgment” will determine who will participate in the “first resurrection” at the second coming of Christ. Many ask the unnerving question: “What will happen when my name comes up? Will our heavenly Judge give me the green light and declare me as “righteous”?

Periodically this topic is revisited in our Sabbath School quarterlies. It is presented as a key doctrine of Adventism and, to their credit, usually the author reminds readers that with Jesus Christ as our High Priest and Mediator, there is no reason for anxiety.

Yet, in many minds there remains a deep-seated fear that we can never be sure that we are good enough.

The doctrine of the investigative judgment is still very much part of the official beliefs of our church. But, in spite of all frantic efforts from the higher regions of the church to preserve this doctrine, it seems that the I.J. (as it is often abbreviated) is losing support and few pastors nowadays preach on it! The conviction is growing that the biblical basis for this doctrine is extremely slim.

Will this traditional Adventist teaching disappear? History teaches us that denominations are not easily inclined to officially abandon a particular doctrine. But they may simply cease to talk about it—even while it remains in the official documents. This is true of the doctrine of predestination in a number of Reformed denominations in my country, and it may well happen in our church with regard to the I.J.

If it does, it will deliver many from a deep-seated fear.

The end
Perhaps an even greater source of fear is the frightening end-time scenarios, the historicist interpretations of Daniel and the Revelation crafted by our pioneers—particularly in Ellen White’s Great Controversy. The incessant emphasis on such topics as the time of trouble, the seven last plagues, the papal Antichrist, the Sunday-laws, the mark of the beast, the shaking, the close of probation, and Armageddon has for many totally eclipsed the “blessed” hope of the “glorious appearing” of our Lord Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).

It seems, when I glance through the Facebook postings of conservative Adventists that the complicated schedules, with lines that indicate historical periods, intersected with dates, are as popular today in Adventist circles as they were when the pioneers developed their prophetic charts.

Speaking in the context of the period prior to his return, and the dreadful events that may then be expected, Jesus admonished his disciples: “Do not be frightened” (Luke 21:9). The last-day events will indeed cause widespread fear (and not just among Adventists), but this fear should give way to faith and hope: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). The words of Isaiah sound as if they were written in our twenty-first century:

Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it (Isaiah 8:12).

There is no doubt that we live in serious times, and that the future of this world is under threat. Believers in Christ can expect major difficulties in the final phase of the history of our planet, before they are redeemed.

But any anxiety about what might come should be absorbed by the assurance of our Lord: “I am with you always, until the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Trust in God
The apostle Paul gave Timothy a clear signal about how to deal with fear:

The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).

And remember the powerful testimony of the Psalmist of how we may find the inner strength to overcome fear: “In God I trust and am not afraid. What can man do to me?” (56:11). Faith that is grounded in the good news of the gospel refuses to give in to fear.

The gospel is a message of love. Love always has the last word:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us, so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment . . . There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear . . . (1 John 4:16, 17).

How soon will I die?

This essay is about life and death, and about life after death. It is an intimate and personal topic, because it touches directly on my own life and inevitable death.

I know that I am alive. The fact that I am writing this is sufficient proof that I am still in the land of the living.

But I also know with absolute certainty that one day I will die. It would be foolish of me were I not to recognize that most of my life is over. I don’t want to ruminate too much about my inevitable demise, but I have reached the phase that, according to Psalms 90:10, “by reason of strength” I’ve made it past three-score-and-ten, and now beyond four-score.

I’m certain I’m old, but I do not know with the same kind of certainty what comes next after the curtain has fallen on my earthly existence. As a Christian, I affirm what Christians throughout the ages have professed when quoting the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

What is life?

We share our human life on planet Earth with some eight billion people. Every day worldwide about 150,000 people die, but this is more than compensated for by the 365,000 births. People differ in many ways, with respect to culture, gender, age, skin color, sexual orientation, and many other characteristics, but whether we are white Americans and Europeans, Asians, Africans or Inuit; whether we belong to the contingent of older women or male adolescents; or any other age, gender or ethnic combination, we all belong to the same species of homo sapiens.

But of course we’re not alone as representatives of life. There are some 5,500 different species of mammals on our planet. Bird-watchers tell us that the mammal species are by far outnumbered by the 9,000 species of birds. Add to that 33,000 species of fish and a million-plus kinds of insects.

Oh, and at least 300,000 species of trees and plants.

What do all these living things have in common? Or to rephrase the question: What, in fact, is life?

Over the years, many definitions have been proposed. As Jack Hoehn wrote in these pages recently, it is not so easy to unambiguously define the boundary between living and non-living things, and the question deserves much debate. For example, are viruses, which cause so much disease in living organisms, even living organisms themselves?

Human life

We would agree that the kind of life that humans possess is unique. I conclude this from the creation stories at the beginning of the Bible. Human life is much more than an assembly of chemical and biological processes; in addition to physical characteristics, there are also intellectual and spiritual dimensions. We are living beings who not only can reproduce and respond to general stimuli, but we can love and hate, use language, understand symbols, and are capable of aesthetic and spiritual feelings.

I have many questions about the first chapters of Genesis, but I continue to believe in Divine creation. How and when creation happened, I don’t know. But I believe that life resulted from a divine initiative—it did not arise by mere chance, but it was created. I do not know what that exactly means. Creating (in the absolute sense) is not something we humans do. God is life, and God created the life we see around us. God created us.

The creation story informs us that human life differs from other forms of life. I do not know what will become of these other forms of life when this present world has come to its end. In a number of places the Bible hints at the existence of animal and plant life in the world to come, but we can only guess about the degree of continuity between now and then. Will there be lions and lambs, but no dinosaurs? And what about rats and sharks?

However, as far as human life is concerned, God’s Word is quite clear about a definite continuity between our present lives and our re-created existence in the hereafter. Because our human life is so special, it holds the promise of eternity. Jesus, along with the Father and the Spirit, underlined this when He declared that He is Life (with a capital letter) and that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.

I recognize that this requires some huge leaps of faith and trust, and it raises more questions than we can ever find answers for this side of eternity. So be it. The bottom line for us is: Life is a beautiful gift, but in final analysis it is something inexplicable.

That’s because it comes from God.


It seems that the older we get, the more funerals we attend. As a retired pastor I have in recent years been asked far more often to lead funerals than to conduct weddings.

All life ends in death. As we grow older most of us lose our parents, our friends, the people we grew up with. Many lose a partner or even children. If we have pets, we have to accept their limited lifespan: we will outlive most of them.

Most of us want to protect life, but we exterminate pests and kill mosquitoes and flies. Some of us eat parts of animals, at least of certain species! Even trees will eventually die, even though a few may be centuries old.

Death is a stark reality. People can die of old age, but death can also come as the result of war or a natural disaster, or through a fatal traffic accident.

Paradoxically, while most people want to push death away as far as possible, it is simultaneously becoming increasingly familiar in our culture. Crime novels and television series about shrewd detectives who unmask killers are hugely popular, though they offer a constant menu of violence and death. In most video games, the players must kill enemies if they want to score points. By age eighteen, most young people have already seen thousands of murders on television and film.

Denying death

Yet we also find that for many in our Western world, talking about death and dying is taboo. In general, people do not want to be confronted with the reality of their finitude any more than is absolutely necessary. This is even reflected in the terminology that is often used. People no longer “die,” but they “pass.” They “leave us” or “are no longer with us.”

Death is often placed at a distance. A major percentage of people die in a hospital or hospice and are cared for in their final days by professionals rather than by their loved ones. And once they die, in most cases, professionals tend to their lifeless bodies. In our aging Western world, the “funeral industry” (the term is meaningful in itself!) has become big business. In the United States, 130,000 people are employed in this “industry,” which has a turnover of more than $20 billion a year.

But whatever we think of death, we cannot stay ahead of the grim reaper. Time is relentless: we live and we die!

Yet just as it is not easy to come up with a definition of life that satisfies everyone, there is also no simple answer to the question of what death exactly is. Most dictionaries agree in defining an important aspect of death as the permanent end of all vital functions. This may seem quite obvious, but dying can be a slow process, and a person may be “brain dead” before all functions have completely stopped. Is a person who is in a vegetative state still alive in a meaningful sense of the word?

Of course, the question of the nature of death is not just a matter of biology, just as life is not confined to the realm of chemistry and biology. What is death from a philosophical or religious point of view? What happens when life ends? Is death the absolute and final end of who and what we are now? Or is it the gateway to a new kind of existence?

To be or not to be is the very existential question we all face in one way or another.

My leap of faith

I take a leap of faith to believe that both life and death involve a dimension beyond our human comprehension. Because life has its origin in the divine Source of life, “death” is ultimately caused by a total separation from this Source of life. Both life and death have supernatural dimensions. The traditional Christian response to the phenomenon of death is that human sin is its cause. I accept this premise, but realize more and more sharply, as I continue to reflect on this topic, that this Christian solution raises many other questions.

The biblical story tells us that humans were created perfect, and originally lived in a paradisiacal situation where death was unknown. As a result of the failure of the first humans to follow the rules God had given, they were punished, and death made its entrance, not only for the first humans but for everything living.

Through the centuries, many have racked their brains about whether they like such a God. They have wondered why God could not have dealt with the violation of His commandment in a gentler way. Many of us shudder at the explanations of theologians who speak in terms of “original sin,” and of “man’s corrupt, sinful nature.” They ask: Was death the only disciplinary measure a God of life (and of love) could think of?

Another question that keeps coming up: What would have happened if the first human beings had not gone against God’s commandment? Would they have continued indefinitely to obey the instruction to be fruitful and fill the earth? Or would there perhaps have been a point at which, for lack of space—when the earth had, say, ten billion inhabitants—human reproduction would have slowed down or even stopped altogether?

Or would death have occurred anyway, even if there had been no sin? According to the biblical story, the earliest diet of the first humans and of animals was plant-based. Doesn’t this imply that there was already some kind of death from the very beginning, since the plants that were eaten clearly ceased to be alive?

The Christian hope

Perhaps you, too, have these questions about life and death, and especially about our hope for what comes after we die. I have been thinking more and more about the subject of death and resurrection—even wrote a book about it a few years ago. I agree with the apostle Paul, when he wrote to the church in Corinth that without the hope of the resurrection the Christian faith no longer makes sense (1 Corinthians 15:14).

For me, a few points are central:

God exists. God is eternal life. And in final analysis all life owes its existence to God.
Christ came to this earth to heal the breach between God and humanity that resulted from man’s failure to trust the Creator.
God provided information about God’s gracious dealings with humanity through the life of Jesus Christ and in the revelation that found its way into our Bible.
Christ lived an exemplary life, suffered and died, but rose from the dead and thereby gives us the hope that, if we believe in Him, we will also one day rise from the dead.
These basic beliefs are my starting point. I take a further leap of faith and build on this basis, as I try to think through the issues surrounding life and death, and as I focus particularly on the question of what follows death.

Many questions remain. I am not trying to ignore them, but I realize that they will remain unanswered because on this side of eternity our knowing will always be partial (1 Corinthians 13:12). I pray that my appreciation for the miracle of life may continue to strengthen my devotion to the God of life, and will fortify my faith in the new miraculous kind of life He wants to give me after my present existence has ended.

Paul thought a lot about life and death, and what his faith told him about it. He came to the conclusion: “Whether we live or we die, we belong to the Lord!” (Romans 14:8). What more can I add? I know deep down that “Whether I live or die, I belong to the Lord!”

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.