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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Mobility scooters

 

I am a native from Amsterdam. I am not a fanatic when it concerns my place of birth and do not regularly track the results of the Ajax soccer club. But . . . Amsterdam will always remain a very special place for me. However, in all honesty I must admit that Rotterdam also has a lot to commend itself.

I do not know Rotterdam as well as I know Amsterdam. So, last Tuesday I decided it was time to pay Rotterdam a visit. As a retiree with a reduction card for public travel, I still had a free rail ticket that I was supposed to use before January 31.

I greatly enjoyed walking around in the center of Rotterdam. The Laurens Church is certainly not one of the oldest large church buildings in the Netherlands, but it is a very beautiful one. So far I had only once been inside that church. This was at some time in the 1990s when the Dutch Adventist Church had rented this facility to organize a one-day spiritual congress. I remember it as one least successful national events that the denomination organized in the last few decades. However, admittedly, it was a sheer impossibility to give some 1500 Adventists an experience of serene rest I such an historic edifice. Let alone that such a large group of people could be served by just two toilets!

But last Tuesday I could enjoy the quiet atmosphere of the church as well as the permanent exhibition. I left the building with some new bits of information. I now know that St. Laurentius was a martyr who served as deacon in the church of Rome in the third century AD. He had been entrusted with the care of the sacred books. Being a book-man he must have been a nice person! It seems right that this church in Rotterdam bears his name. He has, by the way, also become the patron saint of the librarians!

I also visited with great interest the small exposition building adjacent to a major, very spectacular building site. The new Covered Market has not yet been completed, but is already dominating the area around the Blaak. And there were a few other places that filled my day most agreeably.

However, I also had a less pleasant experience. I was almost run over by a mobility scooter that crossed my path with a somewhat reckless speed. For the rest of the day I paid attention to mobility scooters and was amazed to see so many of them, and also the large number of people with a ‘rollator’ (walker). It is great to notice the increasing array of technical support that enables people to remain mobile inside and outside their home. One could also mention quite a few other technical means that are available for people with deep pockets to make life in old age easier. We hear from time to time about government intentions to economize on subsides for these things that help people stay mobile. I hope they will do this in a sensible way, so that low income people will not have to do without their mobility scooters or ‘rollators’.

As I took the train again in the afternoon, I gave this some further thought. The Dutch government is currently promoting a kind of society in which people are willing to help one another and do not always rely on government assistance. This seems quite reasonable, for we are social beings and have a certain responsibility for one another. This is part of what it means to be a human being, and certainly an aspect of being a Christian. Yet, this has its limitations in the kind of world in which we live. Not all our relatives live within walking distance in the same village, and our lives are often so hectic that we cannot give our relatives the care we would like to give. It is, however, good that we are reminded that we must try to care for one another.

Quite a few years ago I saw a documentary about hospitals in Burkina Faso (a state in sub-Sahel Africa) and Switzerland. A Swiss citizen, who was accustomed to high-tech medical care expressed the hope that he would never end up in a primitive hospital in Burkina Faso. But the man from Burkina Faso, who visited a hospital in Switzerland, was also appalled by what he saw. No, he would not want to be cared for in such a hospital. ‘For,’ he said, ‘is is a place where people die alone!’

Let us hope that we can continue to use the technical means that have proved to be such a blessing for so many people. But let us also contribute to a society where people care for each other. Call it what you like. Maybe we should just call it ‘love for our neighbor.’

At the same time we must beware of the many (mostly) elderly fellow-citizens who threaten to kill us with their mobility scooters.

 

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