A time for inspiration

 

At the beginning of this week my wife Aafje and I were busy packing our suitcases in Zeewolde. Now, at the end of the week, we are sitting—after a stop-over of some 36  hours and a very long flight—on a comfortable couch in a  very nice home in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Our jetlag is still bothering us a little, but the worst is over.

The next few weeks we will be the guests of Peter Roennfeldt en his wife Judy. Peter and I were close colleagues when we both worked for a number of years in the office of the Trans-European Division in the UK—the regional office of the Adventist Church for a sizable part of Europe and, at the time, also the Middle-East and even Pakistan. Peter carried some important assignments. One of these was to provide support for the almost 1.000 pastors in our territory. He also coordinated the so-called Global Mission program—the outreach activities that targeted areas and people groups that thus far had remained mostly ‘unreached’ by the church. Another major part of his work was dedicated to church-growth (specifically: church planting) activities.

When I look back at the last twenty years or so, and try to list the people and activities that were most important for European Adventism, Peter’s name emerges quite quickly. In the 1960s and 1970s the Adventist Church in Europe went through a phase in with church growth (certainly in the western countries) stagnated and many church leaders at the national and local level were at a loss to find ways of reaching the increasingly secular population with their message. In many places this resulted in a sense of frustration and loss of hope. Peter played an extremely important role in reversing this downward spiral.

Pastor Peter Roennfeldt succeeded in inspiring many ministers and other church members in quite a few countries in Europe and guided them into the launching of many ‘church plants’. In the Netherlands he inspired, in particular, pastor Rudy Dingjan, besides many others. This was the start of a process that led, over the years, to the launching of some 25 different groups (‘plants’), several of which have by now attained the status of a recognized church. Part of the credit should, no doubt, also go to the positive—moral and financial—support of the Netherlands Union.

Through the years I have kept in touch with Peter. When a few years ago I served for some 18 months as the interim-president of the church in Belgium and Luxembourg, Peter was willing to come three times for an intense program of visitation of the churches and of consultations with the ministerial work force. His contribution was essential at that time and was much appreciated,.

Since a few years Peter is officially retired, but he continues to be extremely active and still inspires and equips groups of pastors, in many countries, within and outside of the Adventist Church.

I look forward to spending a few weeks together. No doubt, we will see a lot in around Melbourne, for Peter and Judy are very enterprising. But I also look keenly forward to the many discussions Peter and I will have. I have always found talking with Peter both challenging and inspiring. He has often given me valuable ideas and renewed energy to do the things that I yet would like to accomplish in this phase of my life/work. The physical experience of relaxing in a totally different environment will do me much good, but the interaction with regard to the ideals and things that are important to us, will be at least as valuable!

 

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Advertising

 

The Remonstrant Church in the Netherlands is a small Protestant denomination that owes it its origin to the 17th century controversy over the doctrine of predestination versus man’s free will. Some time ago it launched a significant poster campaign to promote itself. Shortly, it will now start with a series of 20-second radiospots that are also intended to draw people to the Remonstrant Church. In these spots a pastors of this denomination will very briefly announce what he will preach about the coming Sunday.

Does this form of religious promotion have any tangible results? The Remonstrants are convinced it does. In recent years their membership slowly but consistently decreased. But last years over 300 new names could be added to their membership lists. This is a remarkable growth, considering the fact that de church has only about 5.000 members.

The announcement that these spots will soon begin airing, made me wonder whether  the time may have come that my church in my country should also seek more publicity. Fact is that the Remonstrant Church is much better known than the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Why would hat be? Is it perhaps our somewhat cumbersome name? That, I think, does not fully explain it. There are more denominations with uncommon names. Take e.g. Restored Apostolic Church, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Liberated Reformed (a literal translation of ‘Vrijgemaakt Gereformeerden’). Other unusual names could be added. And let’s face it: the name ‘Remonstrant would not be immediately clear either to people who hear it for the first time.

It is certainly not the size of its membership base that explains that the Remonstrant Church is relatively well-known and respected. The Adventist Church in the Netherlands has more members than the Remonstrant Church. Also, Adventism is found everywhere in the world, while the Remonstrant denomination is an exclusively Dutch phenomenon. The percentage of Remonstrant people who regularly attend church is so problematic that in several places they have decided to worship together with small groups of ‘Doopsgezinden’ (a small denomination with Mennonite roots). On Saturday you will find many more Adventists in their churches that you will find at any Sunday in the Remonstrant pews.

Do the Remonstrants owe last year’s membership increase to a very attractive theology? This may explain it, but only to some extent. Remonstrants are very liberal in their theology and utterly tolerant. Members may write their own confession of faith! This apparentlyappeals to some people, who experienced a lack of space and freedom in their previous spiritual home. But it does not seem to provide a full explanation. Extensive research (also in western countries) has shown that those churches that are still growing tend to be denominations that require quite a lot from their members.

Back to the question: Would advertising be useful for our church? In any case, it would make more people aware of our existence and could help in positively influencing the image of our church. Yes, maybe Seventh-day Adventists in the Netherlands should seriously think about launching a series of public messages that make people think.

Unfortunately most Dutch people know nothing or very little about Adventists. And most of those who have heard the name do not have the foggiest idea what Adventiss stand for. And, regretfully, those who know something about Adventism, often have a rather negative picture. The sad reality is that we are often better known for what we do not (‘are not allowed to’) do, that for what we do and for the values we promote and try to live bn.

Of course, our collective reputation is to a large degree dependent on how each individual members, in his/her own sphere, in words and actions, communicates his/her faith. Most of us should do better in making people curious to know more about our insights and views on God, and on society and the world. And this applies certainly also to myself.

However, I believe it is time to see some collective action. I hope my church will decide to let people more clearly know that we exist and to convince them that we have really something worthwhile to tell them!

 

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Imagination

 

What wishes do I have for the New Year, for myself and for others? It would not be very difficult to compile a long list of things I long for, with good health for myself and the people who are close to me at the top of the list.

But if I were to single out one specific thing (something that usually does not figure in the New Year’s wish lists), it would be imagination.

In the Dutch language we have a good word for imagination, but this word also has some other, negative, connotations. It is usually associated with arrogance, self-importance, pride and self-sufficiency.

I would not wish a greater measure of any of these negative attributes to anyone. Some of us already have quite enough of those. The Dutch word (verbeelding) also has another meaning: imagination, the ability to picture something in our mind, a lively phantasy.

Blessed are (in my opinion) the people who posses an ample portion of imagination. This is not only true for artists, even though it is the foremost requirement for them, if they want to create an object of art. Imagination lies at the basis of all artistic expressions.

But artists are not the only ones who need imagination. When you are making plans, you must be able to visualize—to imagine—how these plans will work out.  You will not achieve much in terms of of innovation, for instance, and you will not find many creative solutions, if you have no imaginative powers.

To bring it a little closer home: A minister must have a fair amount of imagination, especially in finding an approach to preaching that will interest people today: sermons that re-tell biblical stories and then actualize them for our circumstances and time. If you do not have a good imagination, you would do well to stay away from these types of sermons!

A church also—from the level of the local church to the highest ecclesiastical body—needs imagination. This, unfortunately, is absent in quite a few local faith communities, which means that everything remains as it was. And also at higher levels (even the highest one) we see but little imagination. Yet, this is absolutely necessary if we want to dream about the future—about how it could be if we gave space to all fellow-believers around us and would challenge them to embark on new faith adventures, with God and their fellow-believers.

My wish for all my blog-readers is: a tremendous—healthy, blessed and productive–New Year. But above everything else: a major degree of imaginative power.

 

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The Christmas paradox

This week the news reported that the density of traffic in the Netherlands has significantly increased during the past year. Since the economy has been improving, the number of cars has grown, with more traffic jams as a result. It is simply an example of how one situation excludes another situation. When the economy is doing well it is hardly to be expected that the traffic will flow more easily. That is just a fact of life.

The are many things that exclude each other. Yet, there are also things that appear to be at odds with each other but may still go together. Being poor does not automatically mean being unhappy, even though many people might think so. As I am writing these lines, my thoughts go to our night watchman in Yaoundé, Cameroon. We lived in an apartment above the publishing house/printing house. As most people in the area where we lived, we employed a night watchman. One evening, when we returned home, he was preparing his meal under the porch roof. When he opened the gate for us, I made some small talk with him. I looked at his very simple meal. There was a big smile on his face.  Je mange bien, patron!’ (I am eating well, boss!). Compared to me this man was very poor, but he managed to be content!

However, at a different level there are things that human logic simply cannot connect. Human reasoning excludes the one from the other. But in God’s world things that we cannot connect, may somehow go together.

Let me mention just a few of these paradoxes. Take, for instance, the Trinity as an example. God is one. But at the same time he consists of three persons .How in the world can one reconcile these two statements? When, in our search for a solution, we over-accentuate God’s unity (if that were possible), the element of threeness is easily lost sight off. However, if we put too much stress on God’s threeness, we run the risk of ending up with something like a board of three directors of the universe. There is no other option but to accept this mystery in faith.

Or, think of the Bible. The Bible is a divine product, but is is written by humans. What can we make of this? It seems as if we are dealing with two elements that totally exclude each other. However, in God’s logic they are both true. As human beings we must be careful no to overemphasize the divine nature of the Scriptures. Doing this can easily lead us to a rather barren, mechanical theory of inspiration. But if we put the human element too much on the front the Word of God loses its authority.

One more example. We are, as human beings, sinners but at the same time we may claim to be ‘children of God.’ How do these two conditions fit together? Luther spoke the famous words: Simul iustus et peccator—we are justified but yet, at the same time, we remain sinners! To us it would seem that we must be one or the other. But with God these two conditions are simultaneously a reality—and that is something we may gratefully accept in faith. Let us rejoice that the church is not only a school for sinners but at the same time also a community of the saints.

Yes, and then there is this ultimate paradox. Jesus was and is God, and he became man. His incarnation did not mean that he retained just something of his divinity, and that he became somewhat similar to us. His incarnation was not just a pretense. We will never understand it, but in Jesus Christ we find the ultimate paradox. Jesus’ divinity and his humanity must, in our human logic, necessarily exclude each other. But, thank God, in God’s world these two elements can somehow go together.

This is the wonderful truth of Christmas. Jesus became the Immanuel—God with us. Because he is God he can save us. Because he is man, he can in all respect be our ‘brother.’ Thank you Lord for this magnificent paradox.

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Christmas–pagan or Christian?

 

In the past many Adventists in the Netherlands (as well as in a number of other European countries) had a rather troublesome relationship with the Christian feasts, such as Christmas and Easter. These feasts had a pagan origin, it was argued, and people who wanted to take the Bible seriously were not supposed to celebrate them. I remember from my childhood days that no Adventist congregation in he Netherlands  dared to have a Christmas tree in its church. Some ministers were determined to preach during the Christmas season about some Old Testament passage that could not in any way be linked to the birth of Christ.

Fortunately, the elementary school that I attended had a real Christmas gathering with a real tree—with super-dangerous real candles. This was always held in the Christian Reformed Church of the village where I lived. For weeks I would look forward to this event—and not just because I would get a huge orange and a book from some Dutch author of pious, or at least quite moralistic, books. There would be another Christmas event in the Dutch Reformed Church, to which my grandfather belonged, and where I often attended the Sunday school. Here also I could be certain of an orange and a book! And thus I was able to butter my bread on both sides.

At home there was, however, hardly any special attempt to create a Christmas atmosphere. But this changed gradually.  First some pine twigs appeared with some Christmas ornamentations. Somewhat later the Christmas tree made its entrance, with some glitter, a dozen or so Christmas balls and about 15  candles in small metal holders. As a measure of prevention a bucket with water and a wet sponge was kept nearby.

Since then a lot has changed. A few days ago I retrieved our Christmas stuff from our storage space and my wife has been quite busy to create a real Christmas sphere in our home—and, as always, she has been quite successful. Nowadays in most Adventist churches a special Christmas service is held on the Saturday just before December 25, or at some other suitable time in the last week before Christmas.

But the uneasiness about participating in an originally pagan ritual has not completely disappeared from all Dutch Adventist minds. I discovered this when recently, I stayed on a bit after the service, as most members do, for coffee or some other drink, I talked to a few of the members of that local church. One of them asked me what I thought about keeping the Jewish feasts. In answered that I did not feel much attracted to this idea. I am not a Jewish Christian, I told them, but a Christian from the gentiles (to use Pauline terminology). However, I added that I might want to celebrate these Jewish feasts if I were living in Israel—making every attempt to connect these festive occasions with my Christian beliefs. I  compared that  with the fact that as a Christian living in the Netherlands, I would want to join my fellow-Dutchmen in celebrating Christmas, even though I try to avoid the blatant commercialism that we see all around us, and would emphasize the Christian content. This answer did no satisfy my conversation partners, for celebrating Christmas, they felt, was still a very dubious thing for a Bible-believing Christian.

In my view this standpoint betrays a confusion regarding the principle of form and content. Forms usually depend on culture and may be adapted in other cultures and other times, as long as it is filled with appropriate content. Adventists have done so from the inception of their movement.  A very interesting example is the Sabbath school—the Bible study period at the beginning of the church services on Saturday morning. Contrary to what many Adventists think, this feature is far from unique. Several American denominations in the nineteenth century adopted the Sunday school model, with ‘classes; for adults, youth and children. This was a form Adventists did not invent but were eager to use for themselves, after filling it with new content! Many other examples might be mentioned how forms were adopted and then filled with new content. Admittedly Christmas may in its forms betray some pagan elements, but it can be filled with a superb content: Immanuel—God with us!

 

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