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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A prayer for the pope?

 

In Adventist  circles the pope never had a very positive press. At first it was not so bad. In the days of William Miller, the precursor of the Advent Movement, the Protestant churches received the brunt of the criticism. At the time Catholics were not yet very numerous in the United States and the pope was mostly a distant historical figure. But when the immigration from Catholic countries brought millions of adherents of ‘Rome’ to this traditionally Protestant country, Catholics were increasingly regarded as a formidable danger.

As the classical Adventist exposition of the prophecies of the Bible books of Daniel and the Revelation was taking shape, the image of the Catholic Church—and, in particular, its leadership—became ever more negative in many Protestant circles. There was no doubt: the ‘beast’ and the ‘little horn’ were symbols of Catholicism, and, more specifically, of the papal power. In most Protestant circles this idea has long been abandoned, but Adventists have (officially) never distanced themselves from it.

Nonetheless in many areas in the world Adventists do not talk as much as they used to about this prophetic tradition. Many feel quite uncomfortable with it. In our postmodern western world it is no longer ‘sexy’ to speak negatively about other religious convictions. In the past few weeks, however, those church members who faithfully attend the Bible study hour that usually precedes the worship service, have been once again confronted with the official Adventist interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel. The ‘little horn’ has done various evil things to the detriment of God’s ‘sanctuary’, they could read in their Bible study guide. But, fortunately, this is only something temporary, for after a certain period things in the ‘heavenly sanctuary’ are put in order. The traditional prophetic interpretation presents us with enough indications to work out that this process is in a decisive phase since the middle of the nineteenth century.

When visiting a number of churches in the past few weeks and attending the Bible study period, I sensed a lot of unease on the part of many participants, who felt things were far too complicated. They wanted to know what must be seen as the essence, without hearing too many accusations against other Christian believers and without being saddled with too much arithmetic. In his recently published book, that was also translated into Dutch, about this topic, dr. Jean Claude Verrecchia pointed out that the traditional viewpoints could well do with a bit more honest study.

To be honest, the current pope has not made things any easier for us. At first it seemed to mean that the fear we had inherited from the past would be confirmed. A South-American Jesuit as the new pope—could it be that at last ‘Rome’ would once again show its true colors? However, Pope Francis proved to be an enormous surprise. He appears to have a much better idea of what our world is really like and what Christian believers are looking for, than his predecessors. No, as yet we do not see any signals that the pope is about to reject the Catholic teachings that are against Protestant convictions. (Changing even a small detail of a doctrinal system is a difficult process in all denominations, as we Adventists also know too well. Usually time must do the work.) But we do see that the pope wants to create more space for people and no longer wants to emphasize mostly what cannot be done and is not allowed by the church.

Mark Twain already told us that making predictions is difficult, especially when it concerns the future. The least we can say is that we must be extremely careful when making specific historical application of Biblical prophecy. Past history has given us ample evidence that we have missed the mark repeatedly.

I am happy that our eternal salvation does not depend on our precise identification of the ‘little horn’, nor of our ability to explain the various time prophecies—however interesting it may be to devote intense study to such topics.

Maybe the time has gradually come that we no longer do out utmost to paint as negative a picture as possible of the Catholic Church, or to view the pope as the bad guy par excellence. We no longer live in the age of the Inquisition, of the Borgia’s or even at the time of the First Vatican Council. Admittedly, much should still be changed (improved) in the Catholic Church. But perhaps the moment has come not to just condemn the pope, but rather to pray for him!

 

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Poverty

 

In his novel The Eye of the Leopard (as the title is translated from Swedish),  Hans Olofson, a Swede, is the main character. The book is written by the well know Henning Mankell, whose fame is mostly built on his Wallander policy series.

After a rather complicated youth Olofson travels to Africa for a short stay, but in the end he stays there for nineteen years. He works in Zambia on a farm owned by a white woman. When she leaves, she offers him to take over her farm. White farmers, however, are less and less welcome in this part of Africa, and after having suffered a lot of troubles and violence, Olofson gives up and returns to Sweden.

It is a fascinating, but tragic, story that will, especially, touch people who have lived for some time as expat in Africa. Even though I never experienced this degree of racial hatred in West-Africa, where I lived for almost seven years, there is much in this book that I recognize. I have also visited the East-African country of Zambia several times so that I recognize many of the places Hankell writes about.

Besides Hans Olofson quite a few other persons play an important role, in particular Joyce Lufuma and her two teenage daughters Majorie and Peggy. Joyce’s husband was one of the 200 workers in Hans’ employ. He died in an accident and Olofson—who treats his workers much better than most other white farmers—takes care of Joyce and ensures that the two girls  get an education. Olofson greatly admires the way in which Joyce and her family deal with all their problems. He visits them regularly in their hut—for their house if not much more than that—and comes to the conclusion that he—the rich farmer—is, in actual fact, in comparison with Joyce and her daughters, much poorer than they bare. They possess the kind of inner wealth that he does not have.

One of the (several) messages of this fine novel is that concepts like poverty and wealth are very relative.  This past week this was confirmed to me by a report of a Dutch planning agency that indicated how currently over 7 percent of the population, or 1,2 million people, live below the poverty line. When we hear this we must be aware of how ‘poverty’ is defined. Being poor in the Netherlands means living on a minimum income. The report explained that it means that one does not have enough money to buy any new furniture or to buy new clothes on a regular basis. For some it means that they must rely on the ‘food bank’ and it also usually means that a vacation is out of the question.

Not for a moment do I want to suggest that we do not need to worry about the unacceptable level of inequality in our Dutch society. It is scandalous that in one of the richest countries on earth some people must rely on food banks! Nonetheless, we must not forget the relativity of such concepts as poverty and wealth. I am rich when I compare my situation with that of most one-parent families that must live on social security or with those of my age who only have their state pension.  But I am quite poor when compared with the over 154.000 millionaires in Holland.  According to the norms that are used in the recent poverty report, I must conclude that the family in which I grew up was extremely poor—even when seen in the context of the 1950’s. We barely had enough to eat, but not enough to have something on every slice of bread in addition to a thin coating of cheap margarine. Yet, I never felt that we suffered because of this situation.

There is still ample reason to continue protesting against all poverty in the world. And we can never accept that so many people in the Netherlands can not share in the high living standard that most of us enjoy. Yet, at the same time, more people should realize, like Hans Olofson, that true wealth does not primarily depend on the size of your house or the amount of money you have in the bank.

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Northern associations

 

In the past week three cities in the Northern part of the Netherlands aroused some strong associations for me. The first one was Zwolle, where I went to preach last Saturday. Whenever I arrive in Zwolle and turn into the street that brings me to the church, and I see the street name Zamenhofsingel, there are memories of my youth. The Polish-Jewish scholar Leizer Zamenhof (1859-1917) developed an artificial language that was learned by millions of people worldwide. Esperanto, this simple language, without irregular verbs or strange plural forms, was supposed to make international communication so much easier. In the 1950’s and 1960’s of the last century Esperanto became quite popular. In the Netherlands courses were offered in many places and people travelled to large international Esperanto congresses. It almost became a kind of religion. In the village where I lived the headmaster of the public elementary school taught an evening class that I attended as a 12 or 13 year youth, together with my father. I successfully sat for an exam in the city of Purmerend, some fifteen kilometers from where we lived. Going there in the old, windowless truck of a local transport firm was an adventure in itself.

Later this past week my wife and I decided to use one the free tickets that come with our railroad pass for 60-plus citizens, for a trip to Assen. A few years ago the provincial museum in this town was totally revamped. Presently there is a special exhibition dedicated to the Dead Sea scrolls. The theme as well as the content of the exhibition, and the way in which everything is arranged, make a visit very worthwhile.

The manner in which the timeline of the history of the Jewish people, from the fourth century BC to the second century BC, is projected with living images, on one of the walls, is extremely well done. Looking at it, my thoughts went to the Bible book of Daniel. I saw on the wall the dates of 168 BC and 165 BC appear, the years in which respectively the Syrian king Antioch Epiphanes IV desecrated the Jerusalem temple and in which the sanctuary was rededicated. Many (if not most) Bible exegetes are convinced that Daniel’s ‘little horn’ points to this Syrian king. I have to admit that this explanation has always seemed more reasonable to me than the traditional Adventist (historicist) explanation. No wonder that many Adventist colleges have some difficulty in assigning the class on ‘the prophecies of Daniel’ to one of their teachers.

As we travelled by train, we passed Meppel. The train did not stop, but in a flash I saw the sign ‘Meppel’. It made me think of one of the projects that has kept me busy for the last few weeks. Some ten local churches in Meppel—among them the Adventist congregation in this small town in the province of Drenthe—has organized a series of events that center on the ten favorite Bible stories that have been selected by the Meppeler population. In a few months time the activities will end with a major event in the local park. At that time a booklet with some forty meditations will be made available to the public. These meditations will focus on these same ten stories. I have been asked to write this small book and when passing Meppel I was delighted by the the thought that the job is almost finished!

Zwolle, Assen, Meppel—three places that evoked particular associations. Tomorrow I will visit (and preach) in Deventer. I wonder what memories this beautiful Hanze city on the IJssel river will bring.

 

 

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Is every promise irrevocable?

 

This past week the Dutch media reported about two remarkable promises. On Monday the singer Trijntje Oosterhuis, daughter of the famous theologian/poet/ex-priest Huub Oosterhuis, announced on her Facebook-page that she wanted to donate a substantial amount to the nation campaign to help the victims of the terrible disaster in the Philippines.  She promised to donate one Euro for every person who would ‘like’ her Facebook message. After a few hours Trijntje realized she had been rather naïve. Having received over 250.000 ‘likes’, she made sure her generous offer disappeared. She issued a statement that she would make a sizable donation, but was not able to transfer a quarter of a million Euro’s to the bank account of the national campaign.

I have no ways of determining whether or not Trijntje has enough money to give 250.000 Euro’s. The Quote magazine, that seems to know everything about the rich people of this world, reported that giving such an amount would indeed take a sizable bite out off Trijntje’s cash, but that she would in fact be able to do so. Many people commented that they could understand that Trijntje changed her mind after things got so out off hand. Other knew of no pardon: She must do what she promised!

The French public watched in suspense to see whether another publicly-made promise would be fulfilled. Doria Tiller (27), who presents the weather report in the context of a talk show on the French TV station Canal Plus, apparently had little confidence in the capabilities of the French national soccer team. On camera she promised that she would present her weather report in the nude if the French would qualify for participation in the world championships. But, lo and behold, France ended the crucial match with a 3-0 victory. France talked about little else: Would (the attractive) ms Tiller keep her promise and appear naked in tv, or would she manage to find some excuse? She decided to stay with her promise and, totally naked, ran through a meadow, near Paris, while loudly announcing what weather the viewers were to expect. No doubt many viewers were somewhat disappointed that she stayed as far away from the cameras as she did, but—anyway—she did what she had promised.

 

Both Trijntje Oosterhuis and Doria Tiller would have done well to consult to Bible book of Judges and to read the story of Jephta. Those who are familiar with biblical history know that Jephta was the commander of the Israelite army that had to fight the Ammonites. In Jephta 11:28 we learn that Jephta was ‘seized by the spirit of JHWH’, and was convinced that his God would be with him. Against this background he made a promise that was about as stupid as the promises made by Trijntje and Doria. He promised that, if he were to return safe and sound from the battlefield, he would sacrifice the first thing that would meet him when returning home. Of course, he was thinking of a lamb or a calf or some other animal that was suitable for a burnt offering. But what happened? Jephta did indeed return in one piece, but as soon as he approached his house the door opened and his teenage daughter ran towards him.

Jephta was inconsolable. This was something totally unforeseen. To our surprise his daughter agreed that her father should keep his promise. And so he did.

Was Jephta obliged to keep his rash promise and kill his daughter? To me this is one of the Bible stories I find most difficult to stomach. Had I been near, I think I would have said to Jephta: ‘Don’t do this, Jephta. Nobody can expect you to do this. But next time, please, think before you promise something like this.’ And, if I were to meet Trijntje Oosterhuis, I would want to say to her: This was rather stupid, Trijntje. Now, give what you feel you can give. And next time, be more careful!’ And what I would have advised Doria Tiller, if she had asked me whether or not to keep her promise—well, I will keep that to myself.

 

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