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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13 December 2016: Susanna

 

With a lot of satisfaction I held a few days ago my newest devotional book in my hands. I had handed in my manuscript already in June, which means that I had already been able to take some distance from it. But it remains an exciting moment when you first see a new book that you have written. I believe it brings the total of my books to 26.

The book does not pretend to be a theological masterpiece. But then, it was not intended as such. In was written with the hope that many people will find something of value in it. If that proves to be the case (just as it was with my previous devotional) I may find the inspiration and energy to get going on a new devotional!

This blog is posted on December 12. I thought it might be fun to provide a sample of the new book in the form of the meditation of December 13, 2016. It so happens that it touches on a subject that has recently kindled an enormous amount of commotion in the Adventist Church.

Here is meditation, nr. 346.

 13 December

 Susanna (lotus flower; lily)

 Who and when?   One of Jesus’  female disciples.

More information? Read:  Luke 8:2, 3.

Today’s meditation

Many people who want to exclude women from certain offices in the church, often point out that the twelve disciples whom Jesus selected—the later twelve apostles—were all men. That is true, and that fits with the culture of that time. However, it is very remarkable to see how Jesus was often surrounded by women, and how often he chose to be in close contact with them—in spite of the objections and the criticism of his contemporaries. It is even more remarkable that the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb were women!

Luke 8 mentions a number of women.  Several of them had been healed by Jesus from physical of mental illnesses. As a result they had become grateful and loyal followers of him. Among them were women who possessed considerable means, as, for instance, Joanna. She was the wife of the ‘the steward’ of king Herod. Another of these women mentioned by name was Susanna. Together with ‘many others’ they cared out of their own pockets for Jesus. They did not accompany Jesus out of mere curiosity or from a lust for sensation. They were actively involved in Jesus’ mission and were willing to bring considerable sacrifices to do so.

The picture that New Testament paints for us is that Jesus called men and women, and was supported by men and women! There was a lot of discrimination of women in Jesus’ world, but for the Lord men and women were always fully equal.

Prayer for today

Lord, you are full of love and justice. You care for men and women, and both women and men are fully equal in your sight. I want to thank you for that.

The book is published by the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. It is available through its webshop at www.adventist.nl. The introductory price is 11 euros.

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Kendra’s book

 

I got acquainted with Bert Haloviak when, in the early nineties, I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation and spent a few weeks in the archives of the Adventist Church in the basement of the denomination’s headquarters office in Silver Springs (MD, VS). At the time Bert was (and remained so for a long time) the director of the church’s Office of Archives and Statistics. Bert, who is now retired, is a very enjoyable person with a good sense of humor. He has a phenomenal knowledge of the history of Adventism and many related historical topics.

Bert lives with his wife Mary in Southern California, not far from the Adventist La Sierra University. At the time she worked as the administrative assistant of one of the associate secretaries of the General Conference, who, among other things, served as the liaison officer for the region of the world of which Northwestern Europe was an important part. Between 1995 and 2001 I was the general secretary of the church in that region (Trans-European Division) and Mary was of great help to me in finding and processing missionaries for the areas for which we had a special responsibility. She was far more efficient than her boss, and I got in a habit of dealing directly with her. At times I mailed or called her almost on a daily basis and I got to know her quite well.

It so happens that I also know the son-in-law of Bert and Mary reasonably well: Gillbert Valentine. He is connected with the La Sierra University. A recent book for which he unearthed much information that was not or little known, is: The Prophet and the Presidents (published by Pacific Press, 2012). The book describes in much detail the often quite complex and turbulent relationship of Ellen White with three of the presidents of the world church of her days.

Gill is married to Kendra Haloviak, the daughter of Bert and Mary. I first met her in 1995 when she was a member of the pastoral team of the Sligo Church in Washington, DC—one of the largest Adventist churches in the American capital. The church board of this 1.500 member church decided to ordain Kendra as pastor, together with two other female ministers. I had the privilege of attending the ordination service. The ordination was much against the wishes of the General Conference, but the Sligo church board ignored this, convinced that there should not be any status difference between Kendra and her male colleagues.

Since 1995 Kendra has earned a Ph.D. and now, twenty years later, she is an associate professor at the La Sierra University. She still defends  equal rights for men and women in the Adventist Church as stridently as ever. In the past decade or so Kendra has developed into a prominent Adventist theologian. This is abundantly clear from her book that appeared just weeks ago: Worlds at War, Nations in Song, with the subtitle: Dialogic Imagination and Moral Vision in the Hymns in the Book of Revelation. This may sound quite complicated and it reflects that fact that people without some advanced theological training may find the reading rather heavy going.

In this book Kendra departs significantly from the road that most Adventist interpreters have travelled. She does not read the book of Revelation as a report of things that happened in the past and as a prediction of things yet to happen in the end of time. She rather wonders what reading this book of the Bible will do to you; how you react to this book in your inner being (hence the word ‘dialogic’ in the subtitle). She deals specifically in her book with the hymns that are found in the Revelation.

The book was not published by an Adventist publishing house, but by Wipf and Stock (Eugene, Oregon, VS, 2015). This is no coincidence. Unfortunately, the official denominational publishers continue to be extremely hesitant to publish books by Adventist writers who want to stimulate the discussion about theological and biblical topics that many consider sensitive. (I know this also from my own experience.) Opinions will differ about the question whether Kendra goes in the right direction with her book. Personally, I feel increasingly attracted to the kind of approach Kendra represents, and that has, no doubt, been quite clear in the seminars about Daniel and the Revelation that I have, from time to time, presented in recent years.

However, apart from the fact whether Kendra’s views are correct, interpretations (also of the books of Daniel and the Revelation) that differ from the traditional explanations must get a hearing. A denomination that lives in 2015 should not fear any open discussion. ‘Truth’ is not served by scrupulously sticking to traditional views and remaining silent about alternatives. A responsible, but free, discussion about a variety of views will help church members to form their opinion, also with regard to such (often puzzling) books as Daniel and the Revelation. Unfortunately, this is still not possible. But, in the meantime, I want to thank Kendra for a fascinating contribution to the discussion—even though it is still very difficult, and at times impossible, to have this exchange of views via the official Adventist media.

Finally, Bert and Mary and Gill can be proud of their gifted daughter and wife, respectively!

 

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