An unproductive week

It is Friday morning. I look back on a week that was not particularly productive. A serious cold ensured that did not really feel on top of the world. Nonetheless, Monday had to be a day of travel. Just before eight in the morning my son took me to railway station in the Swedish city of Kramfors for the five-hour train journey to Arlanda airport near Stockholm. After a three hour wait and a two hour flight I landed at Amsterdam Schiphol airport and I got home at about 8 pm. In short, not the kind of day that allows you to work steadily at a project.

Yesterday I had an appointment at the American consulate in Amsterdam, in connection with my visa application. This took a major part of the day.  A person who is going to spend some time as a visiting professor in the US must get a J-1 visa and this requires a fair amount of bureaucracy. It begins as soon as one decides to start the application process by calling the number that is indicated on the consular website. The minute the phone connection is established a voice demands to know the number of your credit card. (Strangely enough, the American Express card is not welcome; only a Visa or Mastercard is accepted.) A payment of 15 euros is required before further instructions are issued.

After the inviting university  has submitted a few documents, and paid some ‘fees’—with supporting evidence that the invitee is truly qualified to be a ‘visiting professor’—the main hurdle is the completion of the DS160 form. After downloading it, the work of completing the form can start. Right at that point the warning is given on the screen that the form will requite ca. 75 minutes of intense work. I spend at least that amount of time on it. Page after page with questions one might expect but also with questions that leaves one wondering about their relevancy. I had to do a little research in the family documents to be sure about the exact dates and places of birth of my parents. I could, however, without any doubt, ensure the US government that at present both are not living in the US. I was asked to give the dates of the last five times I visited the US. Fortunately, I was told that I could provide a guess, if I was not sure.

It does make sense that the US authorities want to know whether or not I suffer from some serious communicable disease, but I wonder about the question whether or not I plan to undertake some terrorist activities while in the USA. Would there really be people who proclaim that indeed this is what they are planning? Well, I often do not agree with the views of the world president of our church, but I have never contemplated kidnapping him or putting him out of action by some violent method.

Anyhow, yesterday morning it appeared that I had satisfactorily completed the form, and after a further donation of 120 euro to the US, I was assured that within 2-3 days I will receive my visa by registered mail in the stamped envelope I had furnished.

In the meantime I have booked the flights for my wife and myself on March 23 to Los Angeles and Loma Linda University has provided us with the details of the apartment that has been reserved for us (complete with ‘reclining chair’, cable TV and wifi) for three months. Also I received confirmation from the car hire firm that I will have the pleasure of touring around in a Kia Forte. If I do not know about the hard work I am expected to do, I might be tempted to think of vacation.

Now I need a few really productive days for the preparation of my lectures. I have done most of the work, but there are still some things that need attention. This is quite important, the more so since I know that in the next three weeks I will still have a few other obligations. But my sermon for tomorrow in Almelo is ready. My cold seems to be receding and this Friday may still give me a few productive hours!

 

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Competition

 

This past week I was quite irritated by Sven Kramer.  What annoyed me most was the moment when he threw away his flowers after he had won the silver medal in the 10.000 meter speed skating race for men in Sotsji. He had put all his hopes on the gold Olympic medal and could not stomach the fact that his fellow Dutchman Jorits Bergsma was faster by just over 4 seconds. I can imagine that it is disappointing when you do not get the prize you intensely hoped for, but beings second in an Olympic championship is still an  exceptional honor.

Seeing the inability of Sven Kramer to cope with his disillusionment turned my thoughts for a moment to the traditional Adventist rejection of ‘competitive sports’ and it made me wonder whether this view was after all, perhaps, justified. Could it indeed be true that ‘competition’ harbors the enormous danger that people can become so uptight in their sparring with other people that they become completely oblivious to such values as camaraderie, sportsmanship and appreciation for the success of others?

Even as late as in the nineteen sixties and seventies the Adventist Church tried to ban the participation of sporting teams from denominational schools and colleges in interscholastic events, and sought to discourage individual church members to take part in competitive sports. Church leaders continued to refer to the ‘testimonies’ of Ellen White, who, admittedly, did not totally condemn all forms of sport as such, but let her readers in no doubt about the serious negative effects of competitive activities on our spiritual life .

In the past decades things have changed (see also my blog of last week in which I referred to the Adventist winner of the ING New York Marathon). In the online edition of the Adventist Review I read yesterday about Kenesha Bennett, an Adventist student who participated as a contestant in the popular Jeopardy TV show.  This morning I found in my in-box the newsletter of Oakwood University, the Adventist university that used to especially serve the black Adventist population in the US. In this edition I learned about the Home Depot’s Retool Your School Competition—a competition for students who can compete for a monetary prize to benefit a particular project at their college or university. In the very same issue I also read that the Oakwood students who participate in the Honda Campus All-Star Competition have a good chance of doing well. Last year the students from Oakwood reached the national semi-finals. I might add that nowadays it is not difficult to find lots of examples in the Adventist media of teams from Adventist schools and colleges that take part in regional, state-wide or national sporting competitions and of the praise they receive when they do well.

The debate about the moral aspects of participation in competitions has virtually ended. This happened without any complex decision making processes, that would eventually lead to some final vote to determine how we would henceforth have to relate to this issue. It confirms that in some cases the best way to change things is simply to exercise patience and let a development that has already begun run its course. It might well be that the problem of the role of women in the church would have solved itself to a large extent by now, if the church had followed that route. But by choosing a long formal trajectory that is to find its apotheosis in a vote during a world congress, people keep on digging their trenches on both sides of the issue, waiting for the fateful moment when they can deal the opposition the final blow. Many other denominations have long ago realized that changes are processes that (often) take a lot of time and should run their natural course. Changes in theology and/or in the ways of ‘doing’ church do not easily (and surely not painlessly) occur through a democratic majority vote. The Spirit must be given the space to do his work. And let’s not forget that the eternal Spirit of God does not know of any human rush!

How the views in the church regarding competitive elements in sports and other activities have changed in just a few decades, without a series of study conferences and conducting a world wide vote, might be a simple example of how many processes of change could run their course.  I would certainly plead to give more leeway for such an approach regarding many of the issues the church is struggling with. Could this perhaps be an aspect of the ‘patience of the saints’ that the end-time believers are supposed to possess?

 

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Faith in Sotsji

 

Last week I watched more sports on TV than I usually do. It seems that the rich harvest of medals by the Dutch participants during the Winter Olympics in Sochi aroused my latent nationalistic pride. The enthusiasm of the Dutch men and women on the Olympic podium made me temporarily forget the outrageous amounts that were spent to organize these games (some 40-50 billion euros) in a country where millions still live in abject poverty.

Amidst all the attention for the games in the media I was, in particular, interested in an interview in the Volkskrant with the pastor of the church congregation where Michel and Ronald Mulder, the Dutch skating champions, are usually to be found on Sunday. The pastor spoke about the important role of faith in the daily lives of the twin brothers. For some other media (as e.g. the evangelical television channel) this element also was an important item. When reading and watching such things one cannot help wondering whether Michel and Ronald owed their victory at least in part to the prayers they undoubtedly sent to their Lord during these eventful days in Sotsji.

Does faith impact on one’s results in top sports? The 29-year old Priscah Jeptoo has no doubt that it does. She is an active Seventh-day Adventist church member who won the New York marathon last November.  After a little more than 2 hours and 25 seconds she passed the finish line, 49 seconds ahead of the competition. The pastor of the church that she attends told the press that all church members had prayed for her. Did this play an important role in her success in receiving the half million dollar in prize money?

And how does this differ from what I remember about the time—in the mid nineteen eighties—when we lived in the West-African nation Cameroon. After an important match of the ‘indomitable lions’ (as the national soccer team was called), we could here and there on the streets see the remnants of the chicken that had been sacrificed to ensure the triumphs of the ‘indomitable lions.’ The people are convinced that religion was a major factor for success.

However, let’s stay in the Christian arena. What can we expect from God? How does he deal with the millions of prayers that, audibly or inaudibly, are sent ‘up’ to him each day? (Let us forget, for this moment, the issue as to where God exactly ‘lives’). God receives many contradictory requests. Some want rain. Other are eagerly looking for sunshine.  So, what prayer will God answer? Suppose that Priscah Jeptoo was not the only person for whom many people had prayed, but that others groups had just as intensely prayed for someone else in this New York race?  How would God have dealt with that? And some of the competitors of the Mulder brothers may well have been just as religious, but  they did not see their efforts rewarded with gold, silver or bronze. How do we explain this?

I cannot solve this problem. I remain convinced that prayer has great value. But how prayer ‘works’ remains a divine secret. How faith—or the absence of faith—influences results in top sport, I have no idea, except that it makes sense to assume that faith has a positive effect on motivation and inner balance.

Many questions remain. About one thing, however, I have no doubt. If faith cannot somehow be integrated in our daily activities, it cannot mean very much. Whether you run the marathon in New York or race around on your skates in a stadium in Sotsji—or fill your days as a retired church employee in Zeewolde—your faith must touch whatever you do.

 

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Portrait

Wednesday night was a ‘first’ for me. Never before had I sat as a model for a number of artists. But that evening I had no other choice. My wife is quite active in portrait painting. Together with a dozen or so other more (or less) artistically endowed persons she paints every Wednesday evening in Harderwijk, under the guidance of a professional coach.  The participants take turns in arranging for a model. This week it was my wife’s duty to ensure that there would be someone who would be prepared to sit for a few hours as motionless as possible, so that the ladies and gentlemen, with their oil paint or other media, would be able to paint their portrait. Unfortunately she had forgotten her promise and thus, when remembering her task shortly before she was to leave for Harderwijk, she did not succeed in finding a victim. I was to serve as a deus ex machina: the sudden solution for the predicament.

After having posed for some two and a half hours, I could admire the results, even though ‘admiration’ was in some cases not the most applicable word. However, the evening resulted in a few good portraits. As usual, my wife’s product was one of the best (I think(. It has a good likeness, shows character and has a nice, soft use of color. My only criticism would be that she could have made me look a bit more friendly.

Just sitting inactively—with the instruction to maintain the same posture and to keep looking towards the same point—I had a few hours for my thoughts. Here I was together with a dozen or so people. All were trying to make a picture of the same object. This resulted in just as many different portrayals. They were using different materials. They posses varying skills and styles. But, perhaps more importantly, they all worked from their own position and thus had their own perspective. Some were directly in front of me, while others could only see me in profile—either from the right or from the left. Their hard work resulted in about twelve different interpretations of their model—that is: of me.

My professional bias as a theologian made me think of a spiritual parallel. Members of a faith community all try to construct their own picture of God. Inevitably, these views vary widely. We all come with our own baggage and have different mental and verbal skills. Unfortunately, the way in which some people portray God is so different from the Portrait that we are presented with in the Bible, that the biblical God can hardly be recognized. However, the fact that our views of God differ is not just inevitable but also enriching. But we must always realize that no human being is able to paint the definitive divine Portrait. It remains an interpretation from a particular perspective.

As I was writing this blog I took two books out of my book case—two books with religious images that I bought some years ago. One Thousand Faces of God is a rich collection that tells us how people around the world see their God. These artistic representations have been made by Christians, but also by people who have a totally different view of God that does not appeal to me and in which I do not recognize my God. The Christian paintings are mostly focused on Jesus Christ, since God made himself visible in him. Titian (early 16th century) portrayed him in a way that differs from what James Tissot did in 1897, or our own Rembrandt van Rijn did. But each of these and many others emphasized specific aspects of how they saw Christ.

And I also spent some time with the beautiful catalogue of the exhibition The Image of Christ that I visited in 2000 in the National Gallery in London. It presented a broad array of artistic representations of the unique person of Jesus Christ.  However, beautiful as they were, these were all human interpretations—different from each other and complementing each other. As human being we simply have no other way of portraying an other person or the Other!

 

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Seminar

 

In the late 1960s I spent many hours each day in a small room above the recreation area in the boys dormitory. The room had a small window that allowed me to see the traffic in the corridor to and from the rooms where the boys lived, who were entrusted in my care. In those days the campus, where today the office of the Dutch Adventist Church is located, served as an educational institution with a small theological seminary and also a small secondary school. I taught in the seminary, but my main task was to serve as preceptor (boys’ dean) and coach for the (mainly very young) pupils and a few older students.

This week I spent a major part of my time in the building where I once served as the boys’ dean. This particular building, adjacent to the union office building, now houses a center for training and seminars. Some eight years ago—in the period when I served as president of the Dutch Adventist Church—I took the initiative to have this building completely renovated and made suitable for training purposes, after it had gradually fallen into a serious state of disrepair. The former recreational area is now in use as a ‘state of the art’ room for lectures, training sessions and seminars, while the rooms that once housed the students now serve as reasonably comfortable hotel rooms. During this past week I taught a four-day seminar to over twenty Adventist pastors and I stayed in the room next to the little office that once served as the basis for my preceptorial duties. It was a kind of déja-vu.

The coordinator for the department of the central church office for training and coaching, pastor Jurriën den Hollander, had organized the seminar that focused on the theme of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). He has asked me to teach some 20 hours. A few years ago, I wrote a book on that topic (The Body of Christ, published by the Review and Herald Publishing Association in de US), that was used as the text book for the seminar. It was a most agreeable week, that probably gave me even more pleasure and satisfaction than the participant,

After all, it is far from self-evident that your colleagues are willing to come and listen to you for four full days, even after you have left active service over six years ago. They know more of many aspects of church service, as it is today, than I do, even though I may have been able to delve a bit more into some theoretical aspects. However, I did not pick up any signals that they felt that possibly it would have been better to invite someone who continues to have an active role in the Dutch church of 2014. I must admit that towards the end I felt a little exhausted, but it was a great pleasure to be part of this experience.

The group of Dutch Adventist pastors has seen some major changes in the past few years. The openness towards each other and the appreciation for the diversity among them, seems to have steadily increased. The corps is quite a bit rejuvenated through recent additions of young pastors. And while the women are still in a minority, they now are an integral and substantial part of the group. It is good to see how the pastors appear to feel ‘safe’ when they are together and are able to discuss things freely, even when it concerns delicate subjects concerning our way of ‘doing’ church and facing particular challenges.

I spent a considerable amount of time preparing for this intense week, but I look back at the experience with much satisfaction. Now I can turn a page and start preparing, during the next few weeks, for a three months stay in the United States. Towards the end of March I hope to leave, together with my wife, for California where I have been invited to teach as a visiting professor in the theological faculty of Loma Linda University. I see it as a sign of considerable trust and regard it as a great honor to have been invited for this. However, it will be a big challenge to get all the preparations done. And, before we can set off towards Schiphol Airport, I have a number of sermons to preach, some meetings to attend and to finish a few writing projects. It is beginning to look as if 2014 will once again be quite a full year. It is, however, cause for joy and gratefulness, to still have sufficient energy and, even as a retired person, to be able to contribute and to see that there are still people who are willing to come and listen to what I have to say.

 

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