What shall we sing?

 

When I am scheduled to preach somewhere on Saturday morning, I expect to be called or to receive an e-mail approximately in the middle of the week asking me to send information about my choice of Scripture reading(s) and of the hymns for the congregational singing. Sometimes I am also asked whether my sermon has a title, or what might be the theme that I intend to preach about. And, in addition, there is from time to time the question whether I am ready to tell the children’s story. When it comes to telling stories for the children, I will usually do my utmost to avoid this. I find it awkward not to know the children and to have to guess their approximate ages. Often enough this has given me trouble:  I may have found a story that is suitable for children age 6-8, and then find that the first row is occupied by infants and toddlers, age 0-3.

But choosing hymns is another matter. More and more Dutch Adventist churches have a strong preference for popular praise songs and songs that are found in the so-called ‘blue’ hymn book (originally compiled for the youth). Apart from the fact that I do not like the wording of many praise songs and also do not think too highly of the quality of many of the songs in the ‘blue’ hymnal, I have a very personal reason for preferring the ‘red’ hymnal – the official hymnal of the Dutch Seventh-day Adventist Church.

When this hymnal was created, some thirty years ago, I had an important role in the project. This was not the intention when the project was first planned. But there initially rose so much unpleasant debate that many of those who had been asked as contributors, declined the opportunity to get involved. A very major part of the job was therefore done by Rob Schouten and myself.  Rob is an accomplished poet and author, who has his roots in Adventism.  In those years, three decades ago, his income from his poetry and other activities was still quite modest and some extra income from working on the new hymnal of the Adventist church was very welcome. Today he has an established reputation as a literary critic and as one of the columnists of the daily newspaper Trouw, in which he publishes his pieces three times a week. I have very pleasant memories of our intense collaboration.

If any reader would want to know more of the hymnal (Liedboek voor de Adventkerk), I would suggest that he/she reads its preface (which most users have probably never read). I hold this hymnal still very dear.  I found special satisfaction in translating a fair number of beautiful English hymns into Dutch. If someone would analyze my choice of hymns for the Saturday mornings, he/she would discover that I tend to choose some of these hymns quite regularly.

Of course, my close tie with this hymnal  make me rather prejudiced. But, apart from this I hope hat the ‘classic; christians hymns will not be totally replaced by by these ‘blue’ sing-alongs’ and popular spiritual tear-jerkers.

It may be time, after these thirty years, to start planning for a thorough revision of the ‘red’ hymnal or for developing a completely new one. However, it might also be a good option to take a good look at the newest version (2013) of the Dutch ecumenical hymnal. Maybe this hymnal (Liedboek door de Kerken) can provide a new injection to hymn singing in Dutch Adventist churches. I would recommend this wholeheartedly.

 

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Elections

 

In another three weeks the Dutch people will once again have an election. This time it is about three different entities: the composition of the provincial governments, and, indirectly, also the Senate (which is chosen by the newly elected provincial leaders) ,and also the ‘water boards’.  Unfortunately, I am not in the country on March 18 and will have to ask my wife to vote on my behalf.

Yes, I always take part in elections, but this time I find it more complicated than usually. I try to stay reasonably informed about what happens in our province Flevoland. But what party should get my vote? I consulted the website ‘Kieswijzer’ that is supposed to show which party is closest to my standpoints. In the case of our province there are some key issues: a major development of our regional airport, a number of nature projects and various infrastructural projects. It appears that I am closest to the CDA (Christian Democratic party). However, I would hesitate to vote for them, as I do not like the CDA position on massive farms for pigs and other animals. It is tempting to also think of national politics and  consider the national consequences, if the composition of the Senate would alter significantly. (Whether of not we actually need the Senate and whether the provinces still play an important role is another matter.)

But what about the election of the members of the water boards? There is no doubt that these water boards are extremely important. I have no issue with the fact that I must pay a few hundred euros annually in a special tax to pay for their activities. Certainly, people like me who live in one of the polders of Flevoland, realize that it takes a lot of effort to ensure that our feet remain dry by keeping the water of the IJsselmeer on the other side of our dykes. We also know of the many smaller differences in the water level inside the polders that need constant attention. Through numerous fusions the number of water boards has been strongly reduced. A century ago there were about 3000 water boards in the Netherlands. Now there are 24.  On March 18 the people who are in charge of these 24 water boards must be elected.

That a water board must have people who are in charge, with representatives from various shareholders, is beyond question and in 2015 it is also rather logical to ensure that there is broad participation in the decision who will be entrusted with this task. But how can I, as a citizen who knows nothing about the problems these water boards must cope with, have any idea who might be suitable for such a function? Does someone’s political color, for instance, say anything about that person’s suitability? It would seem to me that there must be a different way to find the people who can bear the responsibilities in these important public entities. But, well, as long as there is no better system, we will have to make the best of it. In the coming days I will try to find out a bit more about the candidates and on that basis I will make up my mind.

Democracy and participation are important values. But whether or not this must always take a form whereby every individual should have a vote with equal weight may be questionable. And this would not only be true of Dutch water boards, but may also apply to other areas.  Students should have a vote in the way in which their university is governed, but must the voice of each individual student be equal to those of the members of the boards of governors and the professors? If so, the students (through their numbers) would be able to have all things their way, Employees, likewise, must have a major input in the affairs of their company, but not all strategies of their company can depend on what the majority of the employees prefer.

In church organizations democracy is also good and necessary. It seems quite OK to let the majority of members decide certain things. But is this form of democracy truly the best (i.e. the majority decides, irrespective of whether all, or most, voters have a clear idea of the issues involved)? This applies, in particular when spiritual issues are at stake, such the (re-)formulation of doctrinal positions or with regard to judging a particular development in church practice (as, e.g., the ordination of female pastors).  Should not, above everything else space and time be given to the Spirit of God to lead the church? Can we not wait and see where the Spirit leads us without forcing an issue by taking a majority vote?

 

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Also on Sunday? Or: also on Saturday?

 

An Adventist church in Huntsville, in the American state of Alabama, has recently launched a remarkable initiative. From now onwards there will also be a church service on Sunday mornings. But Adventists should to worry unduly: the members of the First Seventh-day Adventist Church in Huntsville have not apostatized and have not done away with the Sabbath. On Saturday mornings it will be business as usual in the church that seats about 1.200 people: the Bible study followed by a traditional worship service.

The service on Sunday morning does not target the regular Adventist church goers. The aim is to attract non-Adventist, in particular ‘non-churched,’  fellow citizens to a short church service—people who may find it strange to go to church on a Saturday. The initiators emphasize the informal character of the service, and those who come are encouraged to ‘dress down’.

The leader of the pastoral team indicated that he expects there may be some Adventist church members who may now prefer the Sunday service. However, that is a possible side-effect he is willing to accept. He has received strong support from some: Here is an Adventist congregation that is willing to think ‘outside the box’ and is prepared to try unconventional things to get in touch with people they did not reach until now. Others see only huge dangers. They feel that the Sabbath is the Adventist trade mark par excellence and offering services on Sunday may only create a lot of confusion. Is the Sabbath not that important after all . . . ? And, so the argument continues: before you know it, the Sunday service increases in importance, and the services on Sabbath will become secondary . . .

I have never visited the First Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Huntsville. I have never met its pastoral team and have no idea of the atmosphere in this congregation. However, I am strongly inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt—and, in particular, to trust their judgment. Yet, it immediately occurs to me that the time slot for a service is not the only factor that determines whether or not one will ‘reach’ the people. Most important remains the challenge that the gospel and the Adventist perspective is translated in such a way that people will understand it and see its relevancy. I will follow the Huntsville experiment with keen interest!

In the meantime I have a suggestion for the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN). This faith community is seriously concerned about the future of the Dutch church. It is therefore launching a broad survey in an attempt to find out what the members of the church expect from their church. It is hoped that many ideas may emerge that will give local congregations a new lease on life. It is a praiseworthy initiative. Of course, one may also pose the question whether the church leaders should not, above all, wonder what God expects of their church, rather than to zoom in on the question what the people want. But yet . . .

The average town and village in the Netherlands differs greatly from Huntsville, Alabama. Many Dutch people no longer regard ten o’clock on a Sunday morning the most suitable time for going to church. Many—especially the younger generation– prefer to sleep in, after having partied on Saturday evening. Might the PKN perhaps experiment with services on Saturdays (for instance, late in the morning, with a good breakfast), as people are on their way to go shopping) in some centrally located buildings? Or on Saturday afternoon, with coffee and tea, after the shopping had been done? Perhaps this may be a method to reach a public that is less and less inclined to visit a church on Sunday morning . . . ?

In any case, I am keenly interested in the results of the PKN survey. Other faith communities may probably also learn a lot from its outcome.

 

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Lessons from the Carmelite monks

 

Friends in the beautiful Belgian city of Gent had reserved a room for us (my wife and myself)  in the local Carmelite monastery. The monastery of this ancient mendicant order is situated in the busy heart of the historic city of Gent, but nonetheless is an oasis of rest. The website of the monastery tells the visitor that the Carmelite monks of Gent continue to form a living community. Looking at the size of the historic buildings, the monumental eighteenth century church and the magnificent garden, it would appear that it is, indeed, still very much a ‘going concern’. But there is another side to it. Little is actually left of the real monastic community. Only some seven elderly monks remain.

The major part of the complex us presently in use as a conference center named ‘het Rustpunt’. After a significant renovation it offers excellent meeting facilities. A number of spacious rooms are very suitable for group meetings or seminars. The ‘Refter’ has been changed into a very comfortable breakfast room. On the second floor, along the monks’-corridor, the few remaining monks have their lodgings. One floor higher, along the Eliah-corridor, one finds a series of comfortable hotel rooms for a few dozen guests. One of these rooms had been reserved for us during the past weekend.

If one does not like rest and quiet, and finds it hard to be without television for a few days, this is not the place to stay. This is a place for those who appreciate this kind of environment. It seemed to me that this would be an eminently suitable place for someone who wants to write a book and is in search for a place where one can concentrate for a few weeks, while thinking and working . . .

It is a good things that the Carmelites of Gent have succeeded in giving their center a new purpose. However, at the same time, it also made me sad. Hardly anything is left of an idealistic initiative that for many centuries gave lots of people meaning to their lives and provided a long tradition of serving God in an intense manner.

The Carmelites in Gent are surely not the only ones who see how their tradition is about to end. This experience is shared by people in all kinds of faith communities—also within Protestantism and even in the Adventist sphere. Local church communities that once flourished decline and disappear. Organizations and forms of experiencing the faith and of translating faith into service fall into disuse. Buildings may have to be closed and sold. And people are left with the vexing question where this process of decay will eventually end.

Does not honesty force us to conclude that a major part of the problem is that often the church is so attached to the forms that the content has receded into the background? That as christians we have not succeeded in time to create new forms for living our faith and have not devised new strategies to give expression to our desire to serve the people in relevant ways? Unfortunately , we find in all faith communities—including the Adventist Church—too many instances where a small group of people try to hang on to traditions that have outlived themselves, while they have not succeeded in creating new forms before it was too late. As a result there may still be a monks’ corridor, with some activities that have been started to postpone the inevitable end for a little time. The experience of the Carmelites in Gent teach us a clear lesson.

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TV on Sunday morning

 

In spite of the flu shot, I was, like many hundreds of thousands of my fellow Dutchmen, attacked by by the virus of the current flu-strain. It took some determination to keep going. Last Saturday morning it was a bit dubious whether or not my audience would still be able to understand my guttural sounds towards the end of the sermon. Fortunately, intense coughing fits or periods of awkward frequent sneezing were delayed until after the service.

I am sure that, especially last Sunday, I did not radiate a lot of energy. It was the kind of day that was spend mostly hanging on the couch with quite a bit of television watching. I must admit that I regularly watch some religious television programs on Sunday morning. It is something I got used to during the periods that we lived in the US. On Sunday morning one religious show  follows the other on most American channels. A few are worth watching because of their content, but most of them are only worth watching because they give some insight in this strange world of shouting television pastors and all kinds of, often bizarre, religious fringe phenomena, that form a unique aspect of American ‘culture.’

My ongoing fascination for these programs on Sunday morning on Dutch tv is probably at least partly due to professional deformation. But some of these do have something to say. That is true for many of the interviews by Jacobine Geel and also for some of the conversations during de Wandeling. After this I often stay with this channel for some time for the program of religious singing: Nederland Zingt op Zondag. I agree with my wife that, as far as quality is concerned, it cannot begin to compare with the BBC program Songs of Praise. Yet, even the traditional psalm singing has something special. Whatever one might say about it, it is a specimen of Dutch Calvinistic culture that, I believe, should be recognized by the folks of the World Cultural Heritage. However, my special appreciation  goes to the program De Verwondering (the Wonderment) that is presented by Annemiek Schrijvers. With a restrained kind of devotion she talks with a well-know Dutch person in her small cottage in the woods, some 25 kilometers from Amsterdam. She knows how to touch her guest in such a way that he/she will bare his/her soul and will share his/her faith (or the absence thereof) with the viewer.

This past Sunday Annemiek talked with Jan Brokken. I only vaguely remembered him. Brokken is a journalist, but also a gifted author of travel stories and novels. Last week I happened to see the program in which Bert Keizer, an author and well-known doctor in a care centrum for the elderly, was the guest. And a few weeks ago I switched on the tv just when Annemiek started her interview with Jan Terlouw—the author of books for children and writer of thrillers for adults, as well as a respected liberal-democrat ex-politician. Remarkable enough. all three of these men grew up in a pastor’s home, but all three, apparently, were not able to find in the church what their parents had discovered. Many of my fellow-pastors will readily admit that they share in what must have been the experience of the parents of Brokken, Keizer, and Terlouw: It is certainly not a matter of course that children who grow up in a parsonage will retain their bond with the church.

However, what may be more special about these three interviews by Annemiek Schrijvers is that they were about people like me. Admittedly, these men are much better known and undoubtedly more talented. But all three of them are, like myself, past seventy, but are nonetheless very active in society. They are erudite people, but, in particular, people who have been important to other people and have become mature in their thinking through their experiences. And, they certainly are very spiritual people. In short, this is a trio with whom I happily (rightly or wrongly) identify myself, and who might in this phase of my life serve as role models for me. I secretly hope that, here and there,  there are men and women who see something in me that inspires then and that, maybe, I can serve for some as a role model—even though I do not expect to be invited for a conversation on Sunday morning in the cottage of Annemiek.

[PS:  While I wrote this short piece I experienced no major coughing fit. Maybe the flu has passed its worst and life will be a little more pleasant again in a few days time.]

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