Imagination

 

A few days ago my wife and I visited a unique exhibition of North-Korean paintings. (See my FB page). Such a visit is not complete without a short trip through the museum shop. While my wife was buying a book with pictures of all the paintings that are exhibited, I looked at a few dozen novels and travel stories that all had North Korea as their subject. On the back cover of one of these books I saw a short, but striking, statement: North-Korea is a country where imagination is prohibited.

The visitor of the exhibition, and whoever takes a good look at life in North-Korea in some other way, will inevitably be impressed (or horrified) by the Orwellian situation in this country, where the state does the thinking for all its citizens and prescribes their entire pattern of life. Some time ago I read the fascinating book The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. I described my reading experience of this book that describes life in North-Korea in a blog that was posted on 11 April, 2012. Reading this book awakened in me a strong interest to learn more of this country and its strange dictatorial culture and its, almost religious, personality cult. Everything I read since then about North-Korea and all the images I have seen confirms the sad picture of a country in which imagination is forbidden

In most other places in the world imagination is, fortunately, not forbidden. And speaking about imagination I do not mean unbridled phantasy that has lost all ties with reality (‘what would I do if I won a million Euros?’) or the inclination towards self-aggrandizement (‘who do you think you are?’, but the ability to see opportunities and to look at things in new ways and give them a new color. Not only artists need imagination to express their feelings on canvas or in a musical score. We all must have a dose of imagination to give an extra dimension to things around us and to give our life increased depth.

In an essay that Dr. Laurence Turner (recently retired professor at Newbold College, UK) wrote a few years ago and that he entitled A Costly Lack of Literary Imagination, he emphasized that we also need the power of imagination as we read the Bible. Only if we dispose of a good portion of imagination can we make the Bible stories come truly alive. Likewise, in the church—at all levels—we need imagination to face the future, with its challenges and its promises, in a fruitful way. And, finally, I am aware of the fact that I must never suppress my own power of imagination. For without that my existence will be dry and superficial and I will miss all kinds of surprising opportunities.

Albert Einstein was no doubt right when he said that imagination is even more important than knowledge!

 

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Wir leben autos (cars are our life)

 

I have the impression that lately much of the advertising for new cars does not focus very much on their technical qualities, such as space, comfort, speed, extra’s, etc. More often we are told about the price and the fact that our trade-in will now catch a better price and that we will only need to pay 50 percent cash and then the rest (interest free) within three years. However, in many cases, the promised benefits remain rather vague. The suggestion often is that this special car adds another dimension to our life. It gives us joy, we become a more attractive person (for those of the other sex). In brief: we will enjoy life to a higher degree when we travel in this vehicle.

For many people their life story, indeed, is strongly interwoven with the cars they have owned during their life. I must admit that cars were never totally unimportant to me, and I have owned a quite a range of different makes and models. My first car was a Pontiac Tempest, which I bought during my study in the US in 1965. If I remember well, I paid about 275 dollar (but in 1965 the dollar had a somewhat higher value than it has today). Back in the Netherlands, I bought my first car in 1967 from a garage in Leeuwarden: a Renault Dauphine. I had to borrow 2,000 guilders (the full price of the car) from a local bank. After that there were various other Renault models, some Peugeots, a few Datsuns and Nissans and even a few Volkswagens and (believe it or not) a Lada (in Cameroon). The car I liked best was a Fiat Marea, with many extras such as automatic transmission and a sun roof. But that was in the UK, and when we moved back to the Netherlands, I had to sell it, since it had the steering wheel on the ‘wrong’ side. Since quite a few years I have now been driving Citroens. Occasionally there is the fleeting thought that maybe the time has come to look for another car, since my current Citroen C3 Picasso has now served me for 156.000 kilometers. But I have not yet come to the point that I eagerly visit car dealers and am thinking about some good arguments to convince my wife that the time has come to do some serious car-shopping. In brief: cars are important for me, but, fortunately, they do not determine the quality of my life.

The last few weeks the media have been dominated by the troubles of the FIFA and the controversial re-election of the 79-year old soccer-bobo, mr Blatter. It did not seem (at least not to me) prudent to re-elect this man, but the majority of those who were allowed to vote, rightly are wrongly, were of another opinion. It was amazing to see how tenaciously this man, even after having had the role of president for 16 years, wanted to hang on to his position.( Admittedly, now that I myself have  passed the 70-year threshold, I have a little more sympathy than I might have had in the past, for people of my age or older who still have some ambitions.) For many people, regrettably, their sense of well-being is so dependent on their job or status, that they are no longer able to relativize this, and fear their life will lose all meaning if they must give up their job and no longer enjoy their status. This is a phenomenon that we find in every organization—also in a denomination. Undoubtedly, we will see some examples of this next month, when the world wide Adventist Church will elect its new leaders for the next fives years.

For too many people (including christians) life largely coincides with their job or their possessions, or with other things they cannot easily give up. Yet, followers of Jesus Christ are expected to have another perspective on life. For the apostle Paul life for him was characterized as ‘living in Christ’. He wrote in Philippians 2 about the example that Christ gave us. Christ was prepared to give up his status for our sake. During the seminary classes in christology, which I attended in a distant past, the professor emphasized how Paul used a very specific Greek verb: harpazomai—it means: not hanging on to something whatever it takes. Christ was prepared not to desperately hang on to his heavenly privileges and status.  Following him means, at the very least, that we are also prepared to detach ourselves from material things and status. For most of us (and I do not exclude myself) this is not always easy. It is a project we might best refer to as ‘work in progress’.  But it should be something that characterizes our life as christians!

 

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Asylum seekers

 

Opinion are sharply divided in our town. The local council has, in principle, decided to agree with the establishment of a center for asylum seekers, where, as a start, some 900 people could be accommodated. However, that number might increase to about 1500. Many people in our town are worried. Can we absorb such an influx of foreigners among our 20.000 inhabitants? Do we have the necessary public services? Will this not bring trouble, or even criminality?

Of course, these problems are real and the local authorities will have quite to job to ensure that all goes well. Nonetheless, I am happy that my town Zeewolde has decided to play a role in the care for the refugees that have come to the Netherlands.

Most of the people in our country, I think, feel that we ought to do something for people who come here to seek asylum. But many feel Dutch society is already doing enough. Some even say that we are already doing too much. I disagree. The Netherlands is not leading the way with respect to welcoming refugees and certainly not when it comes to providing even minimal care for the asylum seekers who have exhausted the procedures to remain in our country and must leave—but often are unable to return to their country of origin. By comparison, Germany accepts a much larger quota of refugees.  And also look at Sweden. This country with its 9,5 million inhabitants welcomed in 2014 some 54.000 Syrian refugees. This year its expects to see 70.000 asylum seekers. In 2014 the Netherlands, with almost twice as many citizens, was faced with 24.000 people who wanted asylum. (And Sweden is at present not doing better economically than the Netherlands!) I am really somewhat ashamed of my country. We often pride ourselves that we show the world how things should be done, but in this case we fail miserably.

Many people in Zeewolde (the name of our town) understand that our country must arrange for more centers for asylum seekers, but they feel they have good reasons to oppose the establishment of such a center in their own town. This is a common phenomenon. In the past few years the further development of a nearby small airport has caused similar controversy. Of course, we all want to profit from the price fighter airlines and their cheap holiday arrangements. So, yes, we agree, there must be adequate facilities. But we do no want the planes to fly over the area where we happen to live.

I understand that the refugee problem has many different aspects, and hat you cannot simply open the border for anyone who wants to live in a country with windmills and tulip fields. And there is, of course, a difference between those who had to flee their country because of political or religious repression, and those who migrate for economic reasons. But those who have travelled around in the world and have visited some of the countries from where most of these asylum seekers come, must be sympathetic to the people who want to escape from their situation of terrible poverty. I have travelled enough in those countries to feel empathy for those who try to find a better place to live.

And, finally, caring for people in the margins (and that label certainly applies to the vast majority of asylum seekers) is a crucial aspect of what it means to be a christian. A considerable percentage of the people who live in our town refer to themselves as ‘christians’. I hope they will show their christian spirit when in the near future the first asylum seekers arrive.

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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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