Eavesdropping

 

Yesterday afternoon I attended the graduation ceremony of dr. Simon Ririhena at the Free University in Amsterdam. Simon received his Ph.D. after having produced a dissertation about a traditional concept (‘Pela’) that is important in the culture of a region of the South Moluccans (presently part of Indonesia). In his study he demonstrates how this concept may provide a bridge to the person and the work of Christ. (I could not help but think of the Peace Child approach that was developed by Don Richardson, when he worked as missionary among the people of the Sawi tribe in Irian Jaya.)

Since a number of years Simon has found his spiritual home in the Protestant Moluccan Church in the Netherlands. Presently he is the rector of the Seminary of this denomination that is located in Houten (near Utrecht). Being a Moluccan himself, Simon feels a close tie with, and a responsibility for, the spiritual heritage of his people. However, Simon has always had a connection with the Adventist church. In the past he served for a number of years as an Adventist pastor. When I congratulated him yesterday, he reminded me of the fact that I was the person who (many years ago) recruited him for the study of theology. Perhaps I should feel sad that Simon, at a certain point in his life, exchanged the Adventist Church for the Moluccan Church. However, I must confess that the atmosphere around the hall where the graduation took place and the massive presence of Moluccan people, strengthened my feeling that Simon made the right choice: This is the place where he can be of most significance for lots of people and for the Lord of the church.

In the evening I had to attend a meeting of a small church committee in Huis ter Heide. We were to discuss some changes in the constitution and by-laws of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. It is not such a fascinating subject that it would keep one awake. Before the meeting was to begin I had ample time to have a meal in a restaurant that I used to visit quite regularly when I worked in the denominational office in Huis ter Heide: the Chinese-Indonesian Restaurant Tong-Ah. I had not darkened its door for some time, but I was satisfied to conclude that the people there still deliver ‘good value for the money’.

The restaurant was not very full, but nonetheless two ladies decided to take the table next to mine. They soon engaged in a rather loud conversation, apparently unaware that I could easily follow what they were talking about. At first I tried to be polite and not to listen, and to read a few papers while I was waiting for my food. But soon I gave up, since something interesting caught my ear.

After a few moments the conversation was about a question that one of the women asked her friend, who did most of the talking: Did she still regularly attend church? I picked up that she had for some time attended the services of the Salvation Army. But she and her husband had stopped going there, because they got nothing out of it. The past few years they had faced numerous personal problems, but she did not feel that going to a church would help her very much. Of course, she still believed in God. But, she stated, you can have faith without going to a church.

She continued. Some time ago she was diagnosed with Diabetes 2—rather young, for she is now only 51. She gets a regular check by a specialist nurse who is part of the doctor’s office where she gets her medical care. And, you know, this is such a nice woman! In fact, she is the only person she has met for a long time, with whom she feels she can freely talk about matters of faith. This woman knows how to listen and does not push you. Really, she is a remarkable person. This woman had suggested to her that she might perhaps accompany her to her church, if she felt no longer at home in the Salvation Army or some other church.

“And,’ asked the one woman who was patiently listening, ‘did you ever go with her to her church?’  ‘No, not yet, but I might at some point in time . . .’, came the reply. ‘But it is a bit complicated, you know. For that church meets on Saturday morning and that does not really fit my schedule . . . But perhaps I should go. For, if all the people in that church in Huis ter Heide are like .. . . (and here she mentioned the name of her diabetes consultant) then perhaps it would be a good place for me . . .’

I did not recognize the name of this diabetes consultant, but Chapeau! to her. When I heard this, I thought: I just hope that once in a while there are people who talk like this about me . . .

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Heavenly Hoevelaken

 

Before I located in Zeewolde, I lived for a number of years in Hoevelaken—a name best known to most Dutch people because of the daily traffic jams, nearby, where the A28 crosses the A1. For shopping beyond the everyday necessities, people in the village of Hoevelaken go to Amersfoort, or Nijkerk—a small cozy town which—according to a sign at the entrance of the town, is home to the most beautiful church tower of the Netherlands. This explains why we sometimes still visit Nijkerk

The trip from Zeewolde to Nijkerk does not take very long. It is a twenty minute drive—and to stay within that time frame one can stick to the speed limits. A few days ago my wife wanted to go to Nijkerk for some shopping. She wanted to profit from the annual sales and expected to find a few good buys in a shop for lady’s fashion. I decided to accompany her. That is to say:  while she was shopping, I settled with my laptop in a café on the main square.

However, before I found a nice spot in Café Old Niekerk, I could not resist paying a quick visit to the nearby local bookshop. This bookshop ‘Roodbeen’ can not be compared with some of the major book stores in larger cities, but Roodbeen is part of the Libris-chain and makes a good effort to be an attractive store. The book that got my attention (and that I decided to purchase) is certainly not part of the national top-ten but is mainly of local and regional interest. Is has two different titles and the reader may start at two different points. I was attracted to the side of the cover with the title ‘Heavenly Hoevaken’, but when I turned the book around, I saw that the book is also about ‘Holy Nijkerk’.  The book is written by two different authors—one deals with the religious history of Hoevelaken and the other with the religious past of Nijkerk.

The area of the country where Hoevelaken and Nijkerk are located (the Veluwe) has a rich religious history that has been the subject of many interesting books. One of the well known episodes are the mid-eigthteenth century revivals that took place in and around Nijkerk.

A study of the religious life and of religious movements and denominations—and of the people that played a significant role in these—is of great value. It helps us discover what men and women in different eras expected from their faith and from their church. In most cases, over time, this was subject to considerable change. It has a relativizing influence when one is able to place one’s faith and one’s current situation in a broader historical context. It is useful to find out more about people who, with the passing of time, acquired an ever brighter aura of sanctity (or the opposite). Knowing more about these people usually makes us realize that they were very much ‘like us’—normal people with their virtues and their faults, who do not always deserve the high pedestal on which posterity has placed them.

Yesterday I tried to find out a historical person in the denomination to which I belong. I wanted to know more about the way in which Uriah Smith collected the information on which he based some of his prophetic interpretations. (I have started working on a presentation during an academic symposium in Germany, later this year.)

Uriah Smith was a ‘pioneer’ of Adventism, whose commentary on Daniel and the Revelation dominated Adventist views on those two Bible books for quite some time. Even today some church members treat his books with awe, as if they were more or less inspired. In a biography of Smith (Eugene F. Durand, Yours in the Blessed Hope, 1980) I read a description of a two-month journey of Smith to Europe. He traveled by steamer to England and took, a few days after his arrival in England, the night ferry from England to the Netherlands. As the ferry was not very full, Smith decided to take his chances and stealthily occupied a first class cabin, even though his ticket was for the second class  (so he writes in a letter to his wife). From Hook of Holland he boarded a train to Scandinavia. There his vegetarian convictions soon proved not strong enough to resist a nice salmon and he discovered how others who were, in Scandinavia, traveling with him and who were officially classified as vegetarians, did not object to some good fish in Denmark, and, in particular, Norway.

I was not looking for that kind of information. I wanted to know how Smith arrived at his conclusions about the meaning of the fifth and sixth trumpet in John’s Revelation. But, en passant, I got a better view of the real Smith!

In recent years several Dutch Adventist churches celebrated their 100 years’ existence and several will do so this year and in the next few years. These churches do well not just to look nostalgically at pictures of their past, but also to reflect on their future. Yet, a thorough study of their past may be good for their spiritual health.  Some things may have been much better in the past, but many things probably are much better today. It is good (and relativizing) to place the present in a broader historical perspective!

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Joe Slater

 

During the festive season that is now behind us, for some reason my thoughts went to the various special Christmases and New Year’s Eves that I have experienced in the past. A Christmas breakfast, together with some friends, on the beach near Abidjan (Ivory Coast) was something rather unique. But there are remembrances of this period of the year that will stay with me. The Christmas season of 1965 was one of these.

My wife and I spent the academic year 1965-1966 at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI. It was the year in which I got my Masters. I look back at that period with great satisfaction. However, there was also a down side. We were as poor as church mice. We were not sponsored by the Dutch Adventist Church. The leaders had told me that those who would go to the US for further study would be lost for ‘the work’ in the Netherlands! My wife worked long days in the bookbindery of the university. Along with my intensive study program I work Fridays and Sundays in the maintenance department of the university as a painter. During these painting activities I befriended Joe Slater. He must have somewhere been between 35 and 40. He was a veteran and during his time of service he had met an English girl whom he had married.

Joe not only taught me the ins and outs of the painting trade, but proved to be very keen on working on old cars. That suited me fine. We had bought an old Pontiac Tempest for about 250 US dollars. It gave us numerous headaches. But Joe was always ready to help us to get our car going again.

Some years earlier one of my sisters had emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada. She lived with her Dutch husband in a small town in Ontario, some 400 miles from Andrews. This was a chance to see her and her husband again after a number of years that we had not seen each other. And so we agreed that we would spend the Christmas of 1965 with them. However, at the critical moment our Pontiac gave up the ghost and even Joe was not able to revive it. It seemed that our vacation in Canada would have to be cancelled.

Joe and his wife Grace were far from wealthy. They did not have an expensive Cadillac or some other luxury car, but only a few years old, simple Rambler. It was their only means of transport. For us, however, even a Rambler represented great luxury. Joe and Grace did not hesitate and told us that we could use their car for our trip to Canada.

It would be an adventurous trip, for as soon as we had left we ran into heavy snow. Once we had passed the border with Canada, the weather had turned even more nasty and we had to deal with a dense snowstorm that made it almost impossible to see the road. It was icy, dark and bitterly cold and we were forced to move at very low speed. Then, as if things were not difficult enough, the car suddenly blew one of its tires. There we were, stuck along the 401, in danger to be snowed in, and not really knowing how to solve our predicament. I located the jack, but when I had the car free from the ground, it slid from the jack. To say that it did not look very good would be quite an understatement.

But after just a few minutes one of the few cars that passed us stopped and two young men got out of that car. They asked whether they could help. No, these were not angels; they were Mormon missionaries. In no time they lifted our car with their jack, and exchanged the wheel with the flat tire for our spare wheel. Soon we could resume our adventurous journey towards our destination.

Joe has passed away. Before I started writing this blog, I tried to find his current address. I discovered that he did no longer live at the pace where he eventually managed to repair our Pontiac after we returned from our eventful Christmas trip. In the archives of the South Bend Tribune—the paper of choice for the region around Andrews and probably the dullest newspaper on earth—I found a death notice informing the readers that Joe Slater had, on August 6, 2008, ‘gone to meet Jesus’. So, it would no longer be possible to get in touch with him even if I would be near Andrews again. But I have not forgotten how he helped in an extraordinary way. And this also applies to the two Mormon missionaries. They certainly have helped me to see the Mormon Church in a more positive light than might otherwise have been the case.

Maybe in 2014 I will succeed in being more like Joe Slater and the two Mormon young men than I often managed to be in 2013. I will try.

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Relationships

 

The Netherlands Office of Statistics reports that the number of people without a long-term relationship is on the rise. Many do not want to start a relationship—either by choice or because this is just how life has gone. But in many other cases relationships have suffered shipwreck. Recent data show that nowadays more relationships are ended than get started. These data include not only the statistics for divorces but also the ruptures of long-term relationships of those who cohabited. In many other western countries the situation is similar, or the divorce statistics are even worse than in the Netherlands.

We have seen ample confirmation of this trend during the past year in our own circle of relatives, neighbors and friends. It is almost like a contagious disease that is spreading relentlessly. It is very sad to witness what is happening.

On the other side, our local paper regularly contains articles of visits by the mayor to people in our community who are celebrating fifty or even sixty years of marriage. And even in circles where relationships often seem very fluid,  as, for instance in the showbiz world, we see couples that stay together for a very long time. This past week I read on a news website that Dolly Parton will, before too long, celebrate her golden wedding anniversary.

My wife Aafje and I will have to wait another twelve months before we can celebrate our golden wedding anniversary, but with 49 years we are well on our way. This past week we reached this mile stone.

It is a moment when you realize that it is not to be taken for granted that your relationship did endure. Of course, as one grows older, some people around you are  losing their soul mate, since, after all, life is finite. Nonetheless, one wonders: why did we manage to stay together, where others found that impossible? I realize there is no one simple answer, like: ‘We have been better partners of, and for, each other than most people who saw their relationship go on the rocks.’ But rather than voicing some easy criticism: (‘People do often give up too quickly’, or: ‘Many simply have unrealistic expectations’), we ought to be grateful. Grateful for the fact that both of us are still alive and have the privilege of beginning our fiftieth year of being-together. I sincerely hope that we will complete this fiftieth year, or even reach our sixtieth wedding anniversary—and not only because this would mean that the mayor would visit us twice.

The Christmas speech of the new Dutch king Willem Alexander fittingly emphasized the importance of relationships. He was refreshingly specific, in referring to his own family and to very concrete situations in the country. Pope Francis, in his Christmas greetings, spoke movingly about peace in the world. Admittedly, making peace often involves a complex process, but invariably the restoration of good relationships is a basic element.

Confucius, a philosopher in ancient China (6th cent. BC), once said: If you want to change the world, you must first change the country in which you live; of you want to change your country, you must change the city or the village where you live; if you want to change your city, you must change your family; if you want to change your family, you must change yourself; and that only happens when you have changed your heart.

This seems to be a fitting quote to end my last blog of 2013. If you want your relationship to endure, you will first of all, have to work on yourself—and this entails more than some superficial, ‘cosmetic’ improvements.

And, since I am often writing about the church, I cannot refrain from adding something else: If you want to change the world, you much change the Christian church; if you want to change the Christian church, you must change the faith community to which you belong. And if you really want to change your faith community, you yourself must continue to change. This is the challenge for all of us who  want to be a Christian, also in 2014. In the past in many Dutch living rooms one could see a simple plate on the wall with the words: Change the world, but begin by changing yourself. It is an age-old proverb, but it remains very true.

 

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A new blog . . .

This past week the future of these blogs became rather uncertain. After my last blog I received a number of very negative reactions—they arrived as comments through this site and via e-mail. They were from people who doubted my good intentions. The senders wondered whether I would not do better to simply leave the church. I could pretend that such messages do not bother me, but they do, even though I can almost predict from which people they will come.

However, I also receive other reaction. Someone wrote me in an e-mail: ‘I must confess that I was extremely happy with your last blog about whether or not to pray for the pope. I have struggled with the  quarterly of the past quarter. I do not know what to do with it and decided to completely drop it. . . . We are miles behind and in this manner attracting new members is an utopia. . . . I want to congratulate you with this blog that truly encouraged me. Thank you so much!’

Reading such reactions (and I hear similar comments when I regularly visit local churches), I have the clear impression that there are far more people who appreciate my blogs than there are critics who are irritated by them.

Yet, there is another reason why I wondered whether it is really a good idea to continue  this weekly ritual.  I have been writing these blogs now for almost ten years. When I started I wrote mostly about things I experienced in my official role in the church, and then as a ‘fresh’ retiree. Although I still work full days, I have gradually moved further away from where it really happens in the church and also travel a lot less than I used to. Most of my activities are now limited to writing and translation projects (at home) and teaching some seminars or intensive courses from time to time in various places in Europe. This does not provide so many interesting topics for a weekly blog.

Over the past few years my blogs have become more analytical, and from time to time I wonder (as I did last week) how much sense it makes to continue. However, after giving it some thought, I decided to go on for a while, as long as there are hundreds of people who take a few minutes to read on a regular basis what I write.

There is not much news to report about the week that is now past. Of course, I was deeply moved (last Sunday) by the funeral service for Nelson Mandela, the role model of all role models. But I was also happy to finish a few major projects last week. Yesterday I pushed the ‘send’ button on my laptop to mail a book manuscript to the German Adventist publishing house. Such a moment is one of great relief and satisfaction. The book now goes to a translator and is scheduled to appear in May 2015. In 2014 I hope to contribute to a number of events in Germany. During the next few months I will be quite busy with preparations for a quarter of teaching (April, May, June) at Loma Linda University in California. In January I intend to give the finishing touch to a re-translation into Dutch of Ellen White’s book Christ’s Object Lessons.

Dutch Adventist church news during past week was quite positive. The efforts of the Dutch Adventist Church to communicate digitally with its constituency is gaining momentum. I must confess that initially I was rather skeptical about the plans to publish part of the general Dutch Church paper in digital format. I am sure it continues to be a major challenge (that must not be underestimated) to help the members (especially of my generation and those who are even older) to make the leap into the digital Adventist world. However, what I learned in the editorial meeting that I attended a few days ago has gone far to convince me that we are getting a good product. And by the way: the new approach to the news rubric on the website of the church (www.adventist.nl) also is a great step forward. It is now worthwhile to check the site on a daily basis!

The world church reported last week that, per September 30, the denominations has  passed the 18 million member mark. Each day, on average, 3,000 persons are baptized as Seventh-day Adventists. Admittedly, this growth has been slower in the past few years than in the previous period. This was caused by major losses of people who left the church again and a cleaning of church records. In South-America over a million names of people, who no longer professed to be Adventists, were taken off the books. The growth rate varies greatly from country to country, but it certainly feels good to be part of a movement that is still growing.

A significant event was reported in the independent church media. Unfortunately, the officials church publications, such as the Adventist Review, concentrate to a large extent on hallelujah-stories. In the state Maryland a pastor named Brett Hadley—a teacher in Bible subjects and the chaplain of a secondary school—was forced to resign. He had played a role in the wedding of two women. One of these women was his stepdaughter. He participated in his civic capacity and not as a pastor. He did not conduct a religious service, with a blessing. The employing conference felt that Hadley could not remain a pastor. In a press statement it was emphasized that this disciplinary measure resulted, in particular, from the fact that pastor Hadley had been rather vague when the conference questioned him about his level of involvement.

This story has caused a lot of commotion. On the website of Spectrum, within days, some 1,000 reactions were received. Many noted that people with ‘greater sins’ had not been treated in such a rough manner. Some reacted very positively: At last the church has the guts to take a clear position. But (as may be expected on the Spectrum site) there were far more people who voiced there dismay over the lack of compassion in the way  the church had handled this matter. We should not expect to read anything about this event in the official church press. This certainly does not increase its credibility. I assume this homo-issue will, for some time to come, cause considerable ripples in the Adventist pond.

I write this blog in Staphorst (of all places) – my habitual coffee stop whenever I drive North. I am on my way to Meppel for a meeting about an ecumenical project in which the Adventist Church is participating and for which I am writing a 100-page booklet.

At home the Christmas tree is shining in all its splendor. We hope to have a quiet, pleasant Christmas.  Part of the time I hope to spend reading the highly praised book by Martin Bossenbroek about the Boer War. But, above all, for me Christmas remains a spiritual event that lets me experience in a special way how the Lord entered the world–and my world. That is, of course, more important than all good books and all blogs together.

 

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