A small world

 

Another week has passed. I cannot complain about lack of variation. Besides my set pattern of Loma Linda activities, there continue to be unexpected encounters with people I have met somewhere in the world, or people whose names I knew or whom I have corresponded with. This happened a number of times during this past week. When visiting La Sierra University, dr. Keith Howsen approached me. Many years ago we sat together on the Newbold College executive board. I also had an interesting talk with dr. John Webster, one of the LSU theology professors. Some twenty years or so ago I had diner in the home of his parents in Capetown. His father, a New Testament scholar, is now in his upper eighties, but he still participates in marathons, and easily finishes a half marathon. Later this week, when visiting with a group of pastors in Orange County I met a young woman who told me that as a five-year old girl she had visited in our home with her parents (Gaspar and May-Ellen Colon) when we lived in Berrien Springs (MI). I also immediately recognized one of the people as Tom Nesslund, whom I had met a number of times in Latvia. And thus the big Adventist world can be surprisingly small.

On Tuesday evening I had been invited by the theology department of La Sierra University. A number of theology professors had brought their students together for a lecture that I was to give. Most members of the theology staff also appeared. I had prepared a presentation about the differences between American and European Adventism.  A day later this was also my topic for a meeting with the pastors in the Orange County district (one of the politically most conservative regions of the US).

I continue to think that there are some significant differences between American Adventists and European Adventists. Yet, I have adjusted my ideas somewhat in the past few years. The diversity among American Adventists is staggering. This makes it impossible to speak of ‘the’ American Adventist. European Adventism also exhibits a large degree (and an ever increasing measure) of diversity. The more ‘liberal’ part of American Adventism perhaps tends to think that the European Adventist are more liberal than their American brothers and sisters, but often they are only vaguely (if at all) aware of the large numbers of conservative and ultraconservative fellow-believers at the European side of the big pond. A significant factor, certainly, is  the fact that currently the American influence on European Adventism is greater than vice versa. A tsunami of dvd’s and publications by independent organizations at the fringe of the church, a collection of ‘right-wing’ speakers who are anxious to be invited for speaking tours in Europe (even if they have to pay their own ticket), and such clubs as 3ABN, GYC and ATS, are doing their utmost to strengthen or bring back an orthodox version of European Adventism. Anyway, a presentation about this topic always brings a lively discussion.

Next week I must interrupt my stay at Loma Linda for five days, in order to attend a symposium at Friedensau University in Germany. Long ago I had promised to speak during that convention and it was agreed with LLU that I would keep this appointment and that my Loma Linda program would be adapted to make this possible.

Friedensau University organizes a symposium about ‘The Impact of World War I on Adventism’. I have been assigned the last lecture and am supposed to bring the various strands of the discussion together. Fortunately, I could do most of the preparatory work before I left for Loma Linda. I look forward to the convention of next week, but I must admit I wished I could skip the long flight from LA to Berlin, and, a few days later, in the opposite direction. However, with so many bonus miles, I will soon again have enough miles in my UA account for a free round trip to the USA and that will suit me fine later this year! It is like the great soccer champion and philosopher Johan Cruyff declared many years ago:  Every disadvantage has its advantage!

 

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Big and rich

 

Not so long ago the dream of the average emigrant to the US was to become rich. America was the country where newspaper boys could become millionaires. It was the land of unlimited possibilities. A few years of hard work and you had a sizable amount of dollars in the bank, a nice home and a big car. In many European countries wealth is something to remain hidden—yes for many it is almost something to be ashamed of. Most people would never talk about their very comfortable salary and most people do not like to be listed as rich persons with information about their estimated net worth.

In America these things are different. Success and wealth may be seen. A significant part of the population regards poverty and economic adversity as the result of making the wrong choices, the refusal to get a college degree, laziness or other things of people’s own making. I certainly know to appreciate the good things of life and am happy to be able to live quite comfortably, but I tend to feel a sharp uneasiness as soon I see ostentatious wealth around me and then, moments later, pass a miserable settlement of  the ‘mobile homes’ of those people who can hardly (or not at all) make ends meet. This was what I also experienced when last Sunday my wife and I paid another visit to Palm Springs—a city with over 80 golf courses. We enjoyed the Art Museum that has specialized in contemporary art. A magnificent building, a fascinating art collection, a marvelous garden-restaurant with an assortment of flowering cactuses and modern sculptures—everything demonstrating an exquisite artistic taste and, above all, breathing money and wealth. And yet, when you look around, even in Palm Springs one may see another kind of life. (After all, these golf courses must be maintained by low-paid legal or illegal Mexicans.)

America has an obsession with wealth, but also with format. Things must be big or must have the potential to become big. That is befitting for such a big country (‘our great nation’), a super power with the world’s biggest economy, and with the biggest companies of the world. It may well be that most Americans never read the book  Small is beautiful by the British economist E. F. Schumacher, but it is no coincidence that this classic was not written in the USA. Although the rise in the price of petrol (still ridiculously cheap when compared to Europe), may have stimulated many to say good bye to their big petrol-guzzling automobiles, ‘big’ remains the omnipresent adjective. The portions in most restaurants tend to be indecently big, not to mention the size of the containers in which the waiters continuously pour your water or other fluid. When in a Starbucks I ask for the smallest possible size cup for my ‘medium roast’, I must ask for ‘tall’. Strangely enough this word refers to the smallest available cup size (which will easily take the content of three average Dutch coffee cups).

Would it not create a totally different society if the focus on ‘rich’ and ‘big’ were to shift to an emphasis on ‘good’? I would not mind having  a bit more money and would not object to exchanging my Citroen C3 Picasso, that is patiently waiting for me in my garage in Zeewolde, for a car with a little more space. And many Dutch restaurants could consider serving the coffee in somewhat bigger cups. But I think that above all I would want to be a ‘good’  person.

In the meantime, the USA remains a nice country for a regular visit. This ‘big’ country has a lot of beautiful and interesting things to offer. I hope that at least for some time to come I can continue to return from time to time.

And—whether you like it or not—I remain a fan of president Barack Obama. He has his faults, but, I think, he is a ‘good’ person.

 

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Americanah

 

[Thursday afternoon] My schedule demands that I not only present my lectures but also spend a fair amount of my time in preparations. Yet, I am not so busy that there is no time left for other things, in particular the reading of some good books. We did not take many books with us when we travelled to Loma Linda (one suitcase for each of us with a maximum load of 23 kilo brings serious limitations), but a few visits to one of the Barnes and Noble bookshops (complete with a Starbuck corner) had added to the number of books that we now have in our apartment.

Among the books that I read during the past few weeks is the very special story of William Kamkwamba, a boy from a small village in the East-African country of Malawi. It drew my attention when I saw it on a table with books that were especially recommended—perhaps because many years ago I spent a week or so in Malawi. At that time I visited the Adventist publishing house that is located on the same compound as the Adventist Malamulo hospital. And after this visit I also stayed a few days in Lilongwe, the Malawian capital.

The book “The Boy who Harnessed the Wind”  tells the story of a boy who was unable to attend the secondary school since his parents could not pay his tuition. However, he borrowed books from the tiny local library, in particular on technical subjects. He experimented with electricity and after a lot of hard work succeeded in collecting sufficient junk and disregarded parts of cars and machinery to build a primitive wind mill that could generate  electricity for the house where he lived with his parents and siblings. He not only became a celebrity in his village, but the story also reached the national newspapers and the Malawian television. Eventually, arrangements were made for him to continue his secondary school and he is currently a graduate student at a university in the United States. The book deserves to be translated into many languages. It is one of the most inspiring stories I have read since years. It is a fabulous tale of what you can accomplish if you have a passion you are not willing to surrender, whatever the circumstances.

Just now I have finished another magnificent book with African connections. I have some trouble remembering the name of the author: Chimananda Ngozi Andichie. The book’s title is much simpler: Americanah.  It is basically a love story between a Nigerian young woman (Ifemelu) and a Nigerian man (Obinze). But it is much more than that. In a fascinating way it describes how Ifemelu lives where two different cultures, the American and the Nigerian, intersect. Ifemelu leaves Nigeria for the United States for further study and in search of a more promising future. But after fifteen years she returns ‘home’. Andichie describes in a sublime manner what it means for a Nigerian woman to live and work among black and white Americans. It may be that my interest was especially kindled by the fact that I have lived a number of years in America as well as in Africa. And thus, I think, I have a pretty good sense of what Andichie is trying to convey.

In our society many courses are taught for people who prepare to live and to work in a place with a culture that differs from their own, or to work with, and between, people who have another culture. The Adventist Church also provides courses to train people who leave for the ‘mission field’. Between 1991 and 1994 I worked in the USA, at Andrews University, in the institute that organizes these courses. While reading this book Americanah I wonder whether this might not be an excellent textbook for persons who are taking that course. And I would definitely also advise it as compulsory reading for pastors with a multi-ethnic church. (Provided these missionaries and pastors are able to digest a bit of sex that emerges with some regularity in the book.)

But I have, in the meantime, not forgotten about books on theology. Tomorrow morning I intend to visit the theological bookstore of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena—about one hour’s drive from here. Fuller is the flagship theological academic institutions for the evangelical world and it has a superb theological bookshop. It may be a little awkward to take too many books home, but I am sure we can make room for a few extra books!

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On being more radical

 

Loma Linda is a pleasant place and it would be quite easy to forget the larger world outside. However, when I am not at home, I try to stay informed about what happens in the town where I live, in my  country, in the world, and in the church. I am a frequent user of the internet service that allows me the watch the latest Dutch television news programs. When I fire up my laptop at about 7 am, I watch the news of 15.00 hrs. in the Netherlands. In the evening we spend some time watching CNN and the news on a local PBS station. And thus we will stay abreast of the latest developments in the Ukraine, the new turns in the court case against Pistorius and the negotiations between the Netherlands government and the opposition parties about the Dutch heath care reforms.

The Dutch Adventist Church has an excellent news service. When I look at their site, it gives me a good feeling when reading about the many activities and developments. But, unfortunately, the news from the international Adventist church is not only positive. Regularly, there are news items that confirm how the leadership of the international church is steering an extremely conservative (and, I think, disastrous) course.

Last week I mentioned in my blog that the church has adopted a ‘guideline’ in one further attempt to put a halt to ‘alternative sexual behavior’.  It urges local Adventist churches to take measures against people with an undesirable sexual orientation. This caused a lot of reactions around the world—both positive and negative. However, I have great doubt that this ‘guideline’ will bring many changes. Once people have certain opinions in this area, it proves almost impossible to make them reconsider these.

This past week two regrettable news items caught my attention. For some years, one of the most important Adventist denominational publishing houses is in the financial danger zone. In 2013 the Review and Herald Publishing Association once again suffered a major loss, and 2014 has not begun well. Obviously, something must happen. One of the measures that have now been decided upon is to drastically reduce the number of new titles that has been planned for publication in 2015. It is beyond me how such a measure can bring any financial relief—except if we must assume that every new book will increase the house’s loss. Could it, however, be that the problem is that this publishing firm does not succeed in promoting its products effectively around the world? And could it perhaps be that, increasingly, this firm does not supply what the readers in the Adventist Church want? From what I hear from colleagues, friends and other people I know around the world, it would appear that they often prefer other Christian books. It would seem that such authors as C.S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, Alistair McGrath, Max Lucado, Rick Warren, John Stott, and Tim Keller (just to mention a few) are more popular with a large segment of the Adventist public than even George Knight, Clifford Goldstein, Ellen G. White of Doug Batchelor (to mention just a few of the most popular Adventist writers). The solution for the Review and Herald is not primarily, I would think, a new round of lay-offs and economies, but a more daring strategy, with more innovation and creativity—and a far more effective marketing strategy!

And then there was the announcement that the church has gotten cold feet regarding The Record Keeper—a series of 11 video programs that attempt to communicate the essence of the ‘great controversy’ between good and evil in a contemporary format. The series targets young people in particular. Initially, the church gave its blessing. The people at the church’s headquarters had read the script and provided a considerable subsidy. (The church’s associate communication director was one of the key people in the production of this series.) But now that the series is ready, and has created a lot of enthusiasm with many of those who have had a chance to see it, the denominational leadership has decided not to release it. On second thoughts it was found that the series contains some inaccuracies in the way it depicts the biblical story. Maybe the church leaders have a point, but it is rather late to come to that conclusion.

For many young people it is yet another indication that the church leaders live in a world that differs from theirs, and that they simply do not speak (nor understand) their (mostly visual) language. The fact that they unexpectedly cancelled this creative project will cause a lot of frustration and will not be understood. The church must be prepared to take risks and even accept that mistakes may be made when people try to put the old message into new formats, so that people may be reached whom we now fail to communicate with. Too much reluctance to experiment with new forms (perhaps there have been a few conservative alarm cries?) carries the even greater risk that ever more young (and older) people will decide to leave the organized church in utter frustration. This is something that we should greatly worry about.

As I write, we are at the beginning of the Easter weekend. My wish is that the most radical  deed of God, that we focus on during this weekend, may inspire us to also be much more radical for his sake.

 

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Shame

 

For a number of years I had hardly watched 3ABN, an independent Adventist television channel. Before we moved to Zeewolde we had a satellite dish on our roof and were able to received both Hope Channel and 3ABN. One of the main reasons why, at the time, I bought a satellite system and made sure I could receive these programs, was my desire to stay abreast of what was being offered by these channels to the public–both in and outside the church. A considerable percentage of Dutch Adventists seemed to be regularly watching these programs. Whether they still do, I do not know.

At the time I was not very impressed with Hope Channel, the official television ministry of the Adventist Church. But through the years the quality of the programming has improved—as I have noticed when occasionally viewing the live stream via Internet. I have noticed that the German version is certainly a notch above the other editions. But I used to be very dissatisfied with 3ABN. Most of their programming seemed to be targeting their own back yard:  the people who were financially supporting the ministry (mostly elderly, very conservative, church members).

Now that we are (for some time) in Loma Linda we can ‘enjoy’ the huge amount of television offerings that reach us via the cable. It takes a bit of getting used to: seeing so much tv advertising. And it takes a little effort to discover the channels that may be worth watching occasionally. Some channels, such as the horrible Fox news channel I prefer to avoid. If we watch any television at all, it tends to be a program of one of the public broadcasting channels.

To my amazement I have so far not been able to find Hope Channel between the multitude of channels. But 3ABN is prominently present, as is the channel of the Loma Linda University Church—LLBN (Loma Linda Broadcasting Network). In this latter channel I have, so far, been greatly disappointed. Besides the registration of the worship services I have not yet discovered anything that I would want to watch for any longer than five minutes at most.  And 3ABN . . . ?  Well, when compared with ten years ago, nothing has changed. One evangelistic sermon after the other, with plenty of attention for the beasts from the Revelation, presented in a way that makes you wonder whether you have returned to the 1930s.  The talk shows and kitchen programs still feature the same uninspiring persons as a decade ago. Conclusion: this is not the way to communicate one’s faith in an attractive way to people who live in the twenty-first century.

To be honest: when watching all this I feel ashamed that my church communicates its message so poorly. Unfortunately, however, this past week I have another (more serious) reason to be unhappy with my church. The executive committee of the world church voted this week an important ‘guideline’. Admittedly, it is not a policy that must be applied everywhere, but ‘lower’ church organizations and local church boards are strongly recommended to follow it and are urged no longer to admit to membership (or continue the membership of) people who are gay or lesbian (not even when they live a a monogamous, enduring relationship).

It is remarkable (to say the least) to see this happen when the leaders who met in Capetown for their ‘summit’ on ‘alternative sexualities’ have hardly yet unpacked their suitcases. Was the exercise in Cape Town just an expensive but useless show?  It remains to be seen what effect this new ‘guideline’ may have. The reason given for the creation of this new document is that the church cannot tolerate situations in which people disobey the biblical norms for relationships between the genders. But does this also mean that, for instance, all those who have been divorced and have remarried without adhering to the biblical rules, can henceforth no longer become members or retain their membership?

But, in spite of everything, I continue to love my church, because I continue to believe in its future. In the meantime I hope (and trust) that local church boards will simply ignore this misguided guideline and will demonstrate that Christian compassion has another face than what was shown this past week in Silver Spring.

 

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