Urban Mission

 

Just over a week ago I had, from the forecastle of one of the Venetian bus-boats, a marvelous view of the palaces and other buildings that face the canals. As I looked around I wondered (as a church professional tends to do) how one can, for heaven’s sake, bring the gospel to the inhabitants of such a city—let  alone to the hordes of tourist from all over the world. This thought often occurs to me when I visit a large city and see the masses of humanity, in all their diversity, and the enormous housing estates and constant streams of traffic. How can we as Christians, under these circumstances, do what we have been told to do?

This thought re-emerged this morning, when, under a large umbrella, I took an hour’s walk through the small town where I live, in order to maintain a degree of physical fitness. As I walked, I realized that today the annual meetings of the global executive committee of the Adventist Church begin in the American city of Silver Spring (near Washington, DC). One of the items on the agenda is the stagnation of the growth of the church in the mega-cities of the world. The delegates will discuss a document that has been debated during a special five-day conference that preceded this Annual Council and that has just been finalized. Through the various media I have tried to stay informed about the discussions during this conference on A Global Strategy for Urban Mission. I was not there, and I may be wrong, but what I have concluded from what I have read does not sound very exciting. In fact, the collective reaction seems to be: ‘We really do not know what to do.’ On the one hand, it would seem that many want to stick to traditional methods, hoping that doing more of the same will eventually produce a more satisfactory result. On the other hand, much was said about ‘working in small groups’, church plants’, ‘centers of influence,’ etcetera. It could not find anything that sounds really new. But, before I have a final judgments, I should wait until I have seen the text of the document and read the reports of what is said during the Annual Council. Maybe, I will yet be surprised!

Nonetheless, in the meantime, I have an opinion. The grand majority of those who took part in the recent discussion on the topic of urban mission, and who will be talking about it in the coming week, know preciously little about  cities. Most of them avoid the city as much as they can and do not really know what city-life is like. They have never really met most of the population segments of the city. They worry about the spiritual state of the cities, but accepting an invitation to spend a few weeks giving presentations about a religious topic is not the same as getting involved in urban mission. Usually they talk to people who are already in contact with their denomination and do not touch the target audiences that are in most urgent need of the gospel message.

A substantial ‘urban mission’ can only get off the ground when a significant number of (Adventist) Christians are willing to work and live in the city, between the people that they feel must be reached with the gospel message. Their house must be open for these people. They must also be prepared to send their children to an ethnically mixed school in their neighborhood. They must be willing to invest in volunteer work, and in activities in their neighborhood, in clubs and associations. They must know (and speak), or at least accept, the language of the people they seek to reach and would do well to visit the local pub on a regular basis. Of course, they must be trained and be coached by their church. This is, I believe, the only approach that, in the long term, can have success.

But I wonder how many of those who keep talking about the importance of ‘urban mission’ are prepared to do anything like this. And, let me be honest: I also prefer to remain in the tranquility of Zeewolde and will not volunteer to move to the center of Amsterdam for more than a day. Yes, perhaps I might feel tempted, if I were offered a nice apartment along one of the canals of Amsterdam. But I would like to have a spacious apartment with a lot of privacy, that is safe and has every comfort (preferably with my own parking place). I realize, this is not exactly the starting position for a successful contribution to ‘urban mission,’ as I described in the previous paragraph. But that is, I think, the only viable approach that will ‘work’ when we try to reach the people in the city . . .

 

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From Venice to Battle Creek

 

The winged lion is everywhere in Venice. It is the symbol of the city of Venice and, in the past, of the Republic of Venice. Only after consulting my travel guide, the penny dropped. The symbol refers to Mark, the author of the first gospel to be written, who gave his name to the enormous San Marcos basilica.  [From the first centuries of the Christian era four symbols have been applied to the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: a winged human being or an angel (Matthew), a winged lion (Mark), a winged ox (Luke) and an eagle (John).

The remains of the gospel writer Mark are kept in Venice—where I spent a few days as a tourist earlier this week—, except his head, for that seems to be in Alexandria.  Sneaky sailors or tradesmen from Venice (9th century) operated as clever ‘body snatchers’ and brought the body of Mark—a highly desired relic—to their city, or, more precisely, the cathedral of the city. When a later restoration of the church took place in 1054, the body could not be located, but a timely miracle solved this problem. From behind a pillar St. Mark stretched out his arm to point the doge (the Venetian ruler) to the place where the body could be found!

En route from Florence to Venice I took the opportunity for a short visit to Padua. The cathedral of Padua is home to the relics of St. Luke. A Serbian prince bought Luke’s remains for 30.000 golden coins from an Ottoman sultan. A subsequent transaction brought the relics to Padua. Not long ago one of the ribs of Luke was, however, given to the church in Thebes, which felt it also has a claim to this famous relic.

A few years ago I visited the place that, according to a strong tradition, is the grave of the apostle John, in the ruins of a basilica that bears his name in Ephesus. We can be reasonably sure that, after John had been freed from his imprisonment on Patmos, John lived for some time in nearby Ephesus. And it is, therefore, quite likely, that he was buried there.

So far I have visited the last resting place of three of the four gospel writers. I wonder whether I could perhaps also visit the place where the body of St. Matthew is kept. After a little googling I discovered that the remains of Matthew were somehow found in 1080 in Salerno in Southern Italy.  Ever since large numbers of pilgrims visit the place of these important relics. [Perhaps I will have the chance to go there next year. I have been invited to teach a seminar for the Italian Adventist pastors, and the place for this event will be somewhere in Sicily. If I should go by car, I could easily drive by Salerno.]

From a touristic, and even from a historical perspective, these things are quite interesting. But as a Protestant Christian I find this bizarre relic business totally disgusting. As an Adventist Christian it gives me some additional food for thought. The fact that three houses of Mrs. Ellen G., White may be visited, in Battle Creek (MI), Avondale (Australia), and St. Helena (CA), respectively, may be defensible, as these visits provide considerable historical information to the visitor. But the privilege of holding (in the vault in Silver Spring, MD, where the manuscripts of Ellen White are kept) the enormous 8 kilo Bible, which Ellen White held high for half an hour during a vision, borders perhaps too closely on veneration of relics. And for many Adventists a trip to the cemetery in Battle Creek, for a tour along the graves of the Adventist ‘pioneers’, tends to become a sort of sacred pilgrimage.

The church reformers abandoned all veneration of relics and of the saints involved. Last week further convinced me that we should continue in this same track and turn our back on anything that even faintly resembles it.

 

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Catherine of Siena

 

[Friday morning, 27 September]  On Saturday September 21 a female pastor was ordained in the Hague (the Netherlands). The Dutch Adventist Church decided not to wait for the decision of the Adventist world church, but henceforth no longer to differentiate between the status and privileges of male pastors and their female colleagues.  It was also decided that a female pastor who had already been working for many year as a ‘commissioned minister’ would now be listed as ‘ordained’. I can only rejoice about this positive development.

Earlier this week I was invited to speak in the worship period of the union committee of the Adventist Church in Italy. This governing body was meeting for two days in one of the buildings of the Adventist educational center in Florence. After the worship I was asked to stay for a few moment and to report on the view of Dutch Adventists on the position of women in the church. I had the clear impression that a majority of those present agreed with the Dutch position and would be happy if the church in Italy would follow suit.

It remains strange that it appears to be so difficult to treat men and women on an equal basis. There are so many historical examples of women who performed at least as well and as strongly as male leaders. After having finished my ‘intensive course’ in Florence, I have a few days for touristic activities. Yesterday I visited the exquisite, historical city of Siena, at some 80 kilometers from Florence. The medieval cathedral is a beautiful and imposing building where there is a lot to see, in particular if one looks at the marble floor with its many mosaics. The 130 or so sculptures of medieval popes, who look down upon the believers from their high place just under the roof, are also unique. Of course, I had to buy a richly illustrated book as a souvenir of this memorable visit!

This visit to Siena led me to think of Catherine of Siena. She was a medieval mystic (1347-1380), who rose to great fame in the Catholic Church. She was intensely involved in church-political business, advised several popes and was able to persuade Pope Gregory XI to return from his exile in the French city of Avignon to Rome. Truly an example of female power in the church.

Last Wednesday I held a lecture for a group of students and teachers of the Italian Adventist college. Some non-Adventist pastors had also been invited. I addressed the topic of ‘Building Christian Communities Today’, focusing in particular on the postmodern challenges. Three persons responded with some pointed remarks to what I had said—among them a Waldensian pastor and a female Baptist colleague. This immediately made me think: Why can the Italian Baptists have female pastors, while the Italian Adventists have not yet moved to that point?

For today and tomorrow a short trip to the Adventist youth- and conference center near the city of Poppi is on my agenda. It is a tradition that the student body of the Adventist college in Florence has a special weekend in Poppi at the beginning of the academic year. Tomorrow they will have a church service, where I hope to preach about the topic of ‘real faith’—or: what it means to be an authentic Christian. On Sunday I will start the journey back home, with a detour via Venice.

It was a pity that during these past few days I was not able to closely follow the political events in the Hague. But perhaps a week in Tuscany and a few days in Venice are to be preferred over the political turbulence in the Netherlands.

 

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Preaching

 

[Saturday morning 22 September]  If you are connected with LinkedIn you will regularly receive ‘endorsements’. This means that people in your network indicate they believe you are reasonably good in something. This morning someone sent me such an ‘endorsement’ to confirm that he believes I am good in pastoral theology and church administration. Whether this is true is a bit difficult for myself to say, but, in any case, these are areas where I have been engaged and the person who sent these ‘endorsements’ knows me reasonably well.

Yet, I take this system of ‘endorsements’ with a sizable grain of salt. In the first place, since I take LinkedIn not very serious. It does give some satisfaction to see how many people I actually know around the world and to see and hear from time to time where they are and what these people currently do. By now some 500+ have asked to join my network or have responded to my invitation to do so. But for me as a retired person LinkedIn has very limited practical use. That also applies to these ’endorsements.’

In the second place, I sometimes receive ‘endorsements’ from people who do not really know me well enough to have a good idea whether or not I am reasonably good in the skill they endorse me for. And, in the third place, I get the impression that these ‘endorsements’ present a rather warped picture of me. In the list of special skills that people ascribe to me ‘preaching’ is top of the list, followed by ‘theology’ and ‘religion’. Somewhere close to the bottom of the list are such qualities as ‘church administration’, ‘conflict resolution’ and ‘creative writing’. That is not how I look at myself. I have been  quite active in these domains and (I believe) with some success.

Possibly, the cause of this strange listing of ‘endorsements’ is in part to be explained by the fact that people put me in the category of preachers, and ‘preaching’ is what preachers are known for. An additional factor may be that I have never been somewhat  ‘hidden’, for majors part of my professional life, in a local church, where people had to listen again and again to my sermons, but have always been operating on the ‘free’ preaching market, in the Netherlands, but also elsewhere. And, as a result, ‘preaching’ may be the most obvious thing for many to say about me.

I find the fact that ‘creative writing’ is not very often mentioned by people who want to ‘endorse’ some quality, somewhat disappointing. I have always thought that I am actually more creative with the written than with the spoken word. But, considering the rather ‘relative’ value of these ‘endorsements’ I will not be too frustrated.

In any case—whether or nor I am reasonably good at it—I have always enjoyed preaching. It is no sacrifice to get in the car on Saturday mornings and to go somewhere for a preaching appointment. It does not only give professional satisfaction to write a new sermon, but preaching also is a main aspect of the ‘calling’ of a minister. This may sound a bit heavy and pious, but it is, after all, a tremendous privilege to get up before a congregation with a message that for them somehow becomes a message from Above.

However, this morning I will not be found in a pulpit.  I am by car en route to Florence and have a one-day stop in Monaco. It is a ‘country’ where I have never been before and where there is no Adventist church. But next week I will preach in Florence (Italy) and for the following Saturdays my name is on the roster for Enschede, Haarlem and Gorinchem respectively!

Unfortunately, I will not be present today when two new colleagues (Enrico Karg and Guisele Berkel-Larmonie) are ordained during a special service in The Hague. But maybe I can give a LinkedIn ‘endorsement’ to both for preaching. I have actually heard a sermon of both of them. However: sorry for you, Enrico—I was most impressed by the quality of the sermon of our new female colleague.

 

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Vera Korak Za

 

[Thursday 12 September]  A few days ago I was given a paperback book that I had not seen before. I did not recognize the title: Vera Korak Za: Kako najti Boga in Sebe. After a somewhat close inspection I discovered the book was a translation in the Slovenian language of my book: Faith—Step by Step: Finding God and Yourself that appeared a few years ago simultaneously in Dutch and in English. In the meantime it has been published in about ten languages—to which Slovenian has now been added. I learned that the book came off the press about a year ago, but the church in Slovenia had not thought about telling the author (let alone asking for his permission), and had not yet sent him some free copies. Well, this is not the end of the world and to be honest: the cover of this Slovenian edition looks a lot more attractive than that of the Dutch and the English versions.

Speaking about publishing: since last Sunday evening I am immersed for a few days in Adventist publishing. On behalf of the Dutch Adventist Church I am attending the bi-annual meeting of the people in the countries that belong to the three European regions of the Adventist Church who are involved in the production and distribution of Adventist books and periodicals. The meetings are held in the facilities of the theological seminary of the church in Belgrade (Serbia). The students will return next week from their summer break, and thus most of the eighty or so participants can stay in the student dormitories. However, since there is no space for all in the dormitories, and since in the past I stayed here several times (and since I do prefer a bit more luxury), I gladly volunteered for a room in the nearby Best Western Hotel.

It is certainly interesting to be back in Belgrade. I visited this city quite regularly in the period that I worked in the regional office of the church in Britain. This was in the time of the Balkan wars and during the difficult years that followed. It is clear that much has changed in Belgrade, even though some of the ruins caused by the 1999 NATO bombardments remain. Serbia is in the midst of the process of becoming a truly European country. The poorly dressed older women in their somber dresses and their dark headscarves have well-nigh disappeared from the Belgrade streets.

Wednesday morning someone came to my hotel at 7.15. I was to give a talk at the morning devotions in the Serbian Adventist church headquarters elsewhere in Belgrade. It was a great pleasure to meet pastor Djorge Trajkovski, who was recently elected as the president of the church in Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro. When I first met him in 1995 he was the leader of the small church (500 members) in the Republic of Macedonia. Together we had to face a schism in the church that caused a great deal of havoc.

Most of the problems of the nineties are now distant memories. The Serbian Adventist Church with its roughly 10.000 members is a dynamic organization. Our visit on Tuesday afternoon to Euro Dream—the new publishing/printing house and media center of the church, some 30 kilometers outside Belgrade—may be the best example of this dynamism. In a new factory with office building some twenty (and sometimes more) employees work in shifts to produce Adventist publications (and soon also visual and audio products). It should be added that the firm also accepts commercial work from outside and also prints for other Adventist publishing houses elsewhere in Europe. The fact that no less than some 25 new titles appear each year in the Serbian language is truly amazing.

Tomorrow morning I intend to fly back to Amsterdam. After a few days at home, I will drive (together with my wife) to the Adventist educational center in Florence (Italy), where I am to teach an intensive course on the ‘doctrine of the church.’ I look forward to it.  Florence is not a bad place to be.

 

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