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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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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