Dutch polders and a lake in Cameroon

 

This past week I spend most of my time, from early morning onward, behind my desk and I plan to do so also in the coming weeks. I am working on a number of writing and translation projects and am facing some fast approaching deadlines. I also made a beginning with preparing a series of 20 power point presentations about ‘the doctrine of the church’, for an intensive course for Dutch Adventist ministers that is scheduled for January.

However, I have also found time for a fair amount of reading. About two weeks ago I discovered a Swedish thriller author whose name I had not heard before:  Jussi Adler-Olson. In the meantime I have devoured two of his, rather voluminous, books. The last of these two, with a rather unpromising title about a message in a bottle, proved to have a fascinating plot, and once I started reading I found it hard to lay it down. As I was reading these books in a Dutch translation, I decided to purchase some more books of this author in the original language when I pay my next visit to Sweden.

I also almost finished another book this week. It is written by a Cordula Rooijendijk, of whom I had never heard either. She earned a Ph. D in the field of urban geography, but her book Waterwolven (wolves of the water) is not about an urban environment but about a part of the Netherlands that has for centuries (and still is) threatened by the water. The subtitle tells us that it is ‘a history of floods, builders of dikes and of polders.’ I thought I knew quite a bit about that topic, but as I progressed in the book I discovered that there is a whole lot more to know. In spite of its documentary character it has been written almost as a novel full of suspense. Cordula Rooijendijk tells us about the origin of the Netherlands, about the man-made hills where the early inhabitants escaped from the water; about early attempts to protect parcels of land against the water; about the medieval Cistercian monks who were the first serious, systematic builders of dikes. And, of course, about the famous creation of the Beemster and the Schermer and numerous other polders. And about more recent masterpieces, such as the large Haarlemmermeer polder, between Amsterdam and Haarlem, the Afsluitdijk (across the inland Zuiderzee), the new polders in the large lake that resulted from the construction of the Afsluitdijk and the Delta works, which now protect the southern part of low-lying Holland.

On top of the stack of books that are as yet unread—next to the place on the couch where I usually sit—is the newest book by Frank Westerman that appeared just a few days ago. It is about a mysterious disaster that occurred in August 1986 in the West-African country of Cameroon. In an isolated area, not far from the border with Nigeria, almost two thousand people, and all their animals, died as the result of poisonous fumes that had emerged from a small lake. Since then various scientific explanations, as well as a number of conspiracy theories have been proposed and some colorful myths have developed among the local population.

The name of Westerman is the guarantee for another special book. See my blog of August 9, in which I wrote about his one but last book El Negro en Ik.  His newest book drew my special attention because I have vivid memories of this disaster. At the time my wife and I lived in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. We were suddenly made aware of some strange occurrence in the North-west of the country, but nobody knew exactly what had happened. The wildest stories began to circulate. Relatives in the Netherlands, who heard about it, were very worried and tried to call us. At first thy did not succeed. For a few days all international telephone traffic was impossible. Even today the area where the disaster happened is hermetically closed by the authorities and it is still unknown what caused this calamity.

The mystery of the poisonous lake Nyos intrigued Frank Westerman. In spite of intense research he has not discovered what precisely happened. When interviewed last night on TV he explained how he became fascinated by the myths that have emerged since 1986.  I am certain that the reading of this new book—De Stikvallei—will be a very rewarding experience.

But today (Friday) I will not have time for much reading. Apart from some very mundane duties, I must finish preparations for tomorrow’s presentation in the ARK in Zoetermeer—a meeting of (mostly) Adventist believers who want to hear and talk about aspects of their faith. And I must take some time to create order on my desk, for too often I must search a long time for items that I know must be ‘somewhere.’

 

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Black Pete

 

Greetings from Belgium. Friends who are on vacation have put their house for some ten days at our disposal. And so we are having a very comfortable stay near Antwerp. We have taken some work with us, but we also thoroughly enjoy this special break. It gives us the opportunity to meet some good friends, preach in the Antwerp church, pay a visit to the office of the church in Brussels and, in particular, to visit a few museums. We went to the M-Museum in Leuven—a beautiful museum in an extraordinary modern building, close to the marvelous Gothic townhall on the historic city square.

So far my wife and I had never visited the Museum for Contemporary Art in Antwerp. This was our opportunity. We were mostly interested in the special exhibition ‘Paintings and Other Stuff’ of works of the American artist Kerry James Marshall. Marshall is a prominent black artist, who was born in the South of the United States and presently lives in Chicago. This extensive exhibition of his work will remain a few months in Antwerp and will then move to Copenhagen, Barcelona and Madrid.

If I had been asked to suggest a title for this exhibition I would probably have come up with something that points to the contrast between Black and White. For this impressed me most: I was faced with a different world, a world of racism and oppression. This world is largely unknown to me, but I realize it is good to be confronted with it.  The intense blackness of most of the paintings and other objects presented an intense, compressed experience, a life history and a‘statement’ one cannot easily forget.

In this same week I followed, from some distance, the ridiculous debate in the Netherlands that became ever more extreme and even became an issue  for the United Nations. It was about the question whether Black Pete has to be eliminated from the St. Nicolas-feast. It was argued by some that this black person is a painful memory of an atrociously racist past. It can no longer be tolerated, so it was said, that in our twenty-first century a black fellow human being is cast in the role of a slave for a white man. Well, my appreciation for the United Nations had not been increased this past week. Does this organization not have any greater priorities?

I have tried to imagine what it means for an African, or someone from Surinam or the Antilles, to suddenly see a St. Nicolas and his back associates speed through the Dutch streets. Does this cause severe traumatic thoughts about ancestors who were sold on slave markets and then had to work for the rest of their lives on a plantation? It seems a bit exaggerated to me. When I (many years ago) regularly served as a St. Nicolas, and accompanied by two Black Petes and riding on a white horse, visited the local elementary school and the homes of sick children, it never occurred to me (or, I think, to anyone else) that I was guilty of reinforcing racist ideas in these tender souls.

In any case, if there are people who feel offended by the Black Pete tradition, I feel I have also reason to feel highly upset. As a member of the clergy I could feel utterly frustrated when I see how someone is dressed up as a Catholic colleague and treated as an object of derision. And, let’s be a little consistent: If Black Pete is a problem then we should also include Father Christmas in the discussion. For it could be argued that the figure of Father Christmas is highly offensive to elderly, bearded and obese men. Strange, that the UN does not feel it ought to be concerned about their plight.

 

My conclusion? If you have a chance, pay a visit to Antwerp and experience the impressive visual message of Kerry James Marshall. But ignore this nonsense about Black Pete hat is really about nothing.

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Numbers

 

I do not know of anyone with a shorter family name than the current executive secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. I am referring to dr. Ng, who, as is the tradition, poured a flood of statistical data over the delegates to the  Autumn Council who have held there annual meetings in the past few days.

On the same day that I was looking at the data dr. Ng. provided, I happened to read a few chapters in the fascinating book that Amazon  delivered to my door a week or so ago: From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church. The book is written by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who served for a number of years in a leading position in the Reformed Church in the US, but also had a distinguished career in the world of ecumenism.

It was remarkable to see the striking similarities between the picture that was painted by dr. Ng and what Granberg-Michaelson wrote about Christianity in general. His book explains to the reader how the center of Christianity continues to shift from the North to the South. An ever larger percentage of the Christians no longer lives in the Western world (the “North”), but is now found in the developing world (the “South”). The turning point was around 1980. Since that year the Christians in the South are more numerous than their brethren en sisters in the North. One hundred years ago 80 percent of all Christians lived in Europe and North-America. Today the percentage is only 40 percent. At the same time we note another trend: More than half of all migrants in the world is Christian! This causes the percentage of Christians in the Western world to decrease much more slowly than would have been the case if there were no large scale migration.

There was a time when almost all Seventh-day Adventists lived in the ‘North’. However, that changed a long time ago. Of the 18 million Adventists of today only about 1,2 million members live in North-America, less than half a million in Europe and only some 70.000 in Australia and New Zealand. Ng presented a list of countries where the Adventist Church is growing. These are almost all in the ‘South’. Where the church grows in the ‘North’ .or maintains its numbers, this is owed to a significant influx of Adventist immigrants.

It is not difficult to see the parallel between what happens to global Christianity and what the Adventist Church experiences. This applies, in particular, to aspects of governance. Though a major part of the ecclesiastical funds is still generated in the ‘North’, the agenda of the church is more and more determined by the ‘South’. This has significant consequences. The church is changing—in many respects in a more conservative direction. This will raise the question in the minds of many: Will the church of the future be a church where I, as someone from the ‘North’, will still feel at home?

The book by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson also made me think about another issue. It points out that only a relatively small part of global Christianityis involved in the ecumenical dialogue. One striking example: 349 (large and small) denominations are members of the World Council of Churches. But how many denominations are there in the world? Experts tell us the number is between 41.000 and 43.000. And these are certainly not all one-man operations, but some of these (of which we may never have heard the names) have many millions of members. Many of these denominations claim that they are the only true church. Seventh-day Adventists have also often claimed a unique position for themselves, and many individual Adventists today still believe their church is the only true church. I am a Seventh-day Adventists because I recognize in my church a number of important insights and activities. But to claim that my church is in all respects the only true church. . . ? After digesting the data provided by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson I will be even more hesitant with such a claim than before!

 

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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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