Ascension Day


In the Netherlands Ascension Day has developed into a day for amusement parks and furniture stores like Ikea, and—if the weather is nice—for a drink on a terrace. We (my wife, a guest and myself) drove to the Gooi, an area south-east of Amsterdam. It took some effort to find a sunny terrace with a free table. Near a small stream (the Eem) we found a nice place with a spacious roof-terrace and a beautiful view over the surrounding green countryside. The coffee and the strawberry cake were excellent.

For most Dutch people Ascension Day is no longer a day with religious meaning. It is a holiday, and for many people it forms the introduction to a nice free long weekend. Why they should have this day off—forty days after Easter—is a mystery for the major part of the secularized Dutch population. I belong to the small minority of people who, yesterday, did give the meaning of this christian feast some thought.

Acts 1:9 tells us that on the fortieth day after his resurrection Jesus was together with his disciples. He spoke with them about the mission assignment that was awaiting them. ‘And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.’ Then two angels (’two men in white robes’) appeared, who assured the disciples that their Lord will one day in a similar way return to this earth. As the word ‘ascension’ indicates, christians believe that Jesus departed to heaven, where he now ‘lives’. Adventists stress, in particular, that currently he officiates as our heavenly high priest in his role as Mediator.

It leads us to wonder: ‘So, where is this heaven where Jesus has gone?’ When we think about heaven we automatically look ‘up’, for heaven is ‘above’ us! But twelve hours later, we should really point downward, for in those twelve hours the earth has turned and , in fact, we then look in the opposite direction when we look ‘up.’

Even the Hummel telescope has not discovered a place in the immense universe where God ‘lives’, with his millions of angels, and where he is preparing the eternal dwellings for those who will live for ever with him. Astronomers can scrutinize space over an distance of thousands of light years. Is heaven even beyond where they can see? And, if so, how did Jesus travel this enormous distance when he ascended?

Shoule we take the word ‘heaven’ literally, or does it rather represent some abstract concept? In his fascinating book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Joseph Ratzinger (the former pope Benedict XVI) suggests that we should not think about heaven in any spatial sense. Heaven, he says, means ‘being in Christ’. Any further meaning of ‘heaven’ cannot be expressed in human language.

It would, indeed, also seem to me that we reach a wall when we think about heaven in terms of time and space, as some concrete location, somewhere in the universe, where we will also spend time. But to say that ‘heaven’ is only a synonym for ‘being in Christ’ seems too meager to me. It is more than that. But because of our human limitations we cannot define this ‘more’, since we have no words to describe this extra divine dimension. And, therefore, we must be content with our human terms of time and space.

In our human smallness we will continue simply to look ‘up’ when we think of ‘heaven’. And, that is ok. For most of us need concrete images and must, in all simplicity, search for words that will mean something to us in all our limitations. But as soon as we use these words, and we say: ‘This is how it is’, we must add: ‘But, yet, it is different.’ It is much more than we can grasp. Sometime, in the future, when we live in that other dimension, we will understand what ‘heaven’ really is. Until then we may thank God that ‘somewhere above’ (whatever that means) he has something unbelievably beautiful for us in store.


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Papal audience


On Wednesday evening I arrived back home after a hectic week in Rome. Not all readers of my weekly blog appreciate the fact that from time to time I make (often quite friendly) remarks about Roman-Catholicism and ‘the’ Catholics. Some will no doubt argue that it fits in my (too) pro-Catholic profile  that I would choose Rome as my travel destination. Well, let me put those who are worried about this, at ease. I was in Rome as the tour leader for a group of senior church members. I had not personally chosen this destination, but was only asked to serve as the leader at a late stage of the preparations.

Rome is truly a fantastic city and—when accompanied by good guides—it is a magnificent experience to visit the many classical and ecclesiastical sites. And when Pompeii and Assisi are also part of the trip, this is a great bonus.

Being a tour leader is, however, not only a matter of pure enjoyment. It is a challenge to keep everyone happy—as much as possible. It is far from easy to keep the group together in the midst of, almost always, large masses of people. Organizing the meals during Adventist tours may be the greatest challenge. The restaurants that are contracted by tour operators tend  not to be very creative when it comes to vegetarian meals, which are in relatively high demand among Adventist travelers. And they seem to have difficulty interpreting Leviticus 11 correctly.  But, all together, the participants of this tour did not make things too difficult for me and I returned home feeling quite content. However, I must admit I was rather tired. One of our guides told me that Italy consists for 80 percent of mountains and hills, while the remaining 20 percent consists of stairs. And this latter aspect was certainly our experience!

Among the the elements of the trip that I found personally very meaningful was, in particular, the  papal audience on Wednesday morning. We arrived at the large square before the St. Peter’s basilica at about a quarter past eight. There still were large numbers of empty seats and we could seat ourselves in the front section, even though the most strategic seats (near the corridors where the pope would pass) had all already been taken. How many people were there eventually? I find it hard to tell, but there must at least have been ten thousand people.

The square was filled with happy people, glowing with glad expectancy. For the many groups of pilgrims, from places all over the world, to see and hear the pope would be the moment supreme of their journey to Rome (and maybe of their life). In many ways it resembled a open air version of a Sabbath morning during a General Conference, when many thousands of people from countries around the word, convene in a similar kind of atmosphere!

Around half past nine  suddenly  the white figure of Pope Franciscus appeared. I had to climb on my chair to see the pope. He was driven around for about thirty minutes, stopped repeatedly and occasionally left his vehicle to talk to people. Then he took his seat on the large podium that was erected before the entrance to the basilica. Next was a Scripture reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in some eight different languages, followed by a homily by the pope on this passage that deals with marriage. Then the gist of this homily was repeated in the languages that had earlier been used for the Scripture reading. After this the pope greeted and blessed the main groups that came from these langue areas. The ceremony ended with the apostolic blessing by Franciscus and the collective praying of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. The text was printed on the back side of our entrance ticket. At about half past eleven everything was over and slowly the masses exited the square.

No, I am not at he point of converting to Catholicism. If I ever were to leave my church (which is not very likely), there would be several other options to consider first. But I must in all honesty admit that I felt special, being surrounded by so much enthusiasm and happy faith.

However, now I am back in Zeewolde. It took me a good part of the day (yesterday) to deal with my e-mail backlog. And then I discovered the nearness of the deadline for my contributions to the church paper. Today (Friday) I have dedicated a major part of the day to this. Now a quiet weekend is about to begin. I plan to enjoy it.


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A week as tour leader

This will be a short blog. Presently, I am the leader of a tour group of seniors—mostly members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Netherlands, visiting Rome. We have a full program and there is much to arrange. It leaves me little time to write a blog, or even read my e-mail (let alone answer it).

Our hotel is at a three minute walk from the St. Peter square. Looking from the window of my room on the third floor I see the magnificent dome of the St. Peter basilica, which is beautifully illuminated during the night (and even now, as it is five-thirty in the morning). The crucifixes on the walls and the omnipresent photo’s of recent popes remind us that our hotel is still run by a catholic organization.

We have arrived here in Thursday. Yesterday (Friday) we paid a fascinating visit to Pompeii, the city that was totally destroyed by a spectacular eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 AD. Most of the time the top of the (now dormant) volcano is hidden behind a thick cloud cover, but yesterday the sky was totally clear. Walking amidst the ruins of ancient Pompeii makes one realize that natural disasters are not just happening today. Antiquity also had its disasters, but without any help from international aid agencies or the opening of a special bank account to help the victims.

The guide very ably took us to the major sites of Pompeii. It must have been a vibrant city, with a lot of commerce, and with everything else that through the centuries characterized city life. There was even a red light district where murals above the doors to a series of small cubicles indicated the specialties of the ladies with the oldest profession in the world.

This was the world of the first century of the christian era. It was also the world in which the apostle Paul lived and travelled. There is no document or tradition that suggests that Paul was ever in Pompeii. But is was the kind of world he knew. It was his world in which the gospel had to be preached. That must have been at least as difficult as it is in today’s highly secularized and urbanized world.

Today is Saturday—Sabbath. Some time after breakfast the bus will come to take us to one of the Adventist churches in Rome. I will preach in English, with a translator who ensures a translation into Italian. The local church will provide us with a lunch. From there we will go to the catacombs, and then, among other sites, to the Church of St. Paul outside the wall, where the apostle supposedly was buried.

In the coming days our program includes a visit to Assisi and to the Roman sites from antiquity (e.g. the Colosseum) and, of course, a visit to the famous Vatican Museum and the Sixtine chapel. Those who wish can attend the weekly papal audience on Wednesday morning in front of the St. Peter.

It is indeed a full program which hardly leaves me, as the tour leader, time for a blog. Of course, I am also enjoying the experience. But there is also a bit of stress to ensure that everything goes well, the tickets are bought, everything runs according to the time schedule, and the restaurants do not forget their instructions about the peculiar Adventist eating habits. So far, things go well. And with the blessings from above, I trust it will be a good week!


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There is good news for all who enjoy reading biographies and autobiographies of spiritual leaders. Just days ago the third volume of the Dutch translation of Hans Küng’s memoirs appeared. The book costs almost 60 euro’s (about 80 dollar), but it is value for money, for it runs to 752 pages.

Hans Küng, the famous but controversial Roman-Catholic theologian, is advanced in years. When he had completed the second volume of his autobiography, he expressed his fear that he might not live to finish the third volume. Fortunately, he did. The book covers the period of his life since 1980, when the Catholic church withdrew his teaching license. But that did not silence him, as we read on the back of the book cover. Since that time he has been especially active in the dialogue between the world religions, while he also wrote a number of highly interesting books. I have read some of these, and also the first two volumes of his autobiography. These made fascinating reading, and it will not be long before I will buy the third volume. I am, in particular, curious about the final chapters in which Küng addresses some crucial questions: Was it all worth it? How will I die? And what will come after death?

But currently I am reading the biography of the Dutch emeritus-cardinal Ad Simonis, written by historian Ton Crijnen (Kardinaal Simonis: Kerkleider in de Branding; Published by: Valkhof Press, 2014; 592 pp.; 39,95 euro). Like Küng, Simonis has been very controversial, but in a different way than Küng. Where Küng longed for a renewal of Catholicism, Simonis has always been a man of the tradition. In the part of the book that I read in the past few days Simonis appears mostly as a rather tragic figure—a man with a high calling and with solid principles, but unable to understand contemporary culture and also the changes among the Catholic believers. I fear that he will be mostly remembered because of his unfortunate statement ‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’! in his 2010 television interview about the sad story of sexual abuse in the Roman-Catholic Church. However, the biographer also presents him as a simple and cordial man. This is also my own recollection from a very pleasant visit I had, together with two colleagues, with him in his home at the Maliebaan in Utrecht, at the time of the Adventist world congress in1995 in that city.

I am very interested in this kind of biographies and autobiographies of church leaders and theologians, specially of those who belong to he Catholic tradition. I usually find in their life and in the ministry in their church much that evokes a sense of recognition. It reminds me over and over again how much my church resembles the Church of Rome—in particular in its structure and its dealing with problems—in spite of the strong traditional anti-feelings towards Catholicism.

In a paragraph in one of the first pages of the book (in the Introduction) I was struck by a statement about Simonis which made me think about a clear parallel between him and the top leadership of my own church. It is said of Simonis that he had a very poor relationship with the progressive 8-May movement. He simply could not see this movement as ‘the other face of his church’. Instead he saw this liberal movement as ‘the face of a different church’. Throughout his ministry Simonis did not strive for unity in diversity in his church in the Netherlands. He did all he could to hold on to traditional ideas, that were no longer experienced as relevant by many members of his church, and he resisted everything that differed from age-long tradition. It is not difficult to see a parallel in the tragic attitude of (in any case: a part of) the leadership of the Adventist world church.

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A comparison


I have a reasonably good idea of what there is in Europe with regard to Adventist theological education. A few weeks ago I attended a conference of Adventist theology teachers, who work in the various European educational institutions. About eighty people—mostly with a Ph.D. in some theological discipline—participated.  The meeting was at Newbold College in the UK, where, in addition to a sizable group of bachelor students, some 70-80 young men and women work on their masters degree in theology. This past week I was a few days in Collonges, in France but just across the Swiss border near Geneva, where an institution of about the same size is located. A German-language Adventist university, not far from Magdeburg, where I also visit on a regular basis, has about the same number of theology students. In addition, there are, spread over Europe, about a dozen other smaller institutions with an  average of 10-20 theology students.

Admittedly, the institutions of the Adventist Church in Europe that cater for its theological education have plenty of problems.  The finances, in particular, remain a matter of grave concern. However, the overall picture is quite impressive, especially with a view to the fact that the total number of Adventist church members in Europe is less than half a million!

Wile, during the past week, I was a few days in France, my wife noticed that one of the regional Dutch television stations was to broadcast a documentary about the training of priests in the archdiocese of Utrecht. She recorded the program, which was entitled: ‘And yet, I want to become a priest’, thinking (correctly) that this would interest me. The documentary told the story of the Ariens Institute, the official theological education of the Utrecht archdiocese.

The archdiocese of Utrecht is the largest of the seven dioceses in the Netherlands. It covers, apart from the Utrecht provinces, also the provinces of Overijssel, Gelderland and Flevoland. The total number of Catholic church members in this organization is about 700.000. In other words: more than the total number of Adventists in all of Europe.

This Dutch archdiocese needs a constant replenishment with  new priests.  The documentary took the viewer to the Ariensconvikt—the stately building in the center of Urecht, where the theology students of the archdiocese live and follow part of their studies. They also have lectures elsewhere, as e.g. at the Utrecht branch of the Tilburg Catholic University. To my amazement (and, in fact, also to my dismay), the total number of theology students currently enrolled is thirteen—of which five have come from Colombia. They have come to the Netherlands, with the intention of serving the Dutch church, knowing that there is a serious shortage of priests.

It may be that some of my fellow-Adventists feel good when viewing such a documentary which does not precisely present a living, vital Catholic church community. I do not share such sentiments. I found the dedication of the men who were interviewed quite impressive. Here were some young men, who were very much part of this world, but who testified of their calling and their ideals.  But, yes, I wondered with sadness: How is it possible that a christian church is going down so quickly? How much future is there for a church if it no longer succeeds in recruiting people to serve within its structure?

In the traditional Adventist scenario of the future Catholicism is attributed a rather sinister role. From a European—and certainly from a Dutch—Adventist perspective that view is no longer very convincing!

However, in the meantime: let us be grateful that European Adventism—in spite of all its problems and current controversies—is in much better shape. But rather than leaning back with satisfaction, let us concentrate on our task of communicating the gospel to people in a society that moves further and further away from church and faith.


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