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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Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons

 

I knew there are more Mormons and more Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands than Seventh-day Adventists. However, I was surprised to learn that the difference was that significant. I acquired this information this past week when reading the most recent issue of Spectrum—the independent quarterly journal of an Adventists organization in the United States. In a very solid article[1], three experts compare a few aspects of the three important religious movements that originated in nineteenth century North America and have since spread around the globe.

I learned quite a bit from the article. The Adventists, with about 17 million baptized members, are the largest of the three movements. According to the statistics provided by the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (as the Mormon church is officially called) there are about 14 million Mormons in the world, while the Watchtower Society reports its membership at close to 7.3 million. In comparing these figures a few things need to be kept in mind. Jehovah’s Witnesses only report active ‘publishers’, while Mormons keep those who have strayed from the faith in their books, and also count youth from Mormon families, who have not yet made the choice to become a member. Adventists, on the other hand, only count baptized members, and those who leave the church are supposed to be taken off the membership list, but, admittedly, the Adventist membership registration is far from perfect.

The distribution of the three communities over the world differs a great deal. Half of all Mormons live in the United States. They have been reasonably successful in South-America, but not so in Asia and Africa. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are spread a little more evenly, but they have, by comparison, a good-sized membership in Europe (about 1.6 million).  Only around 7 percent of all Adventists live in North-America. They are more numerous in South- and Inter-America, Africa and some parts of Asia.

I was surprised to read that, of the three movements, the Adventists have thus far been least successful in Europe. This also applies to the Netherlands. According to the authors of article there are almost 9,000 Mormons in the Netherlands, almost 30,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, but only around 5,000 Adventists. Why have the Adventists not done any better? I can hardly suppose that Adventist theology calls for so much more resistance with people who consider changing their religious affiliation, than the teachings of the Mormons and the Witnesses.

How can the success of the Mormons be explained? Their theology, I think, is quite bizarre in many respects. I once talked about my faith with a lady, who at a given point said: ‘I have just become a Mormon. If you had come a bit earlier, I may well have become a member of your church. I was looking more than anything else for a warm church, where people are nice to me.’ The Mormons are well known for the cordial way in which they accept people into their midst and for the many social activities that strengthen the ties between the members.

The Mormons are also known for being very meticulous with their contacts. Wherever in the world you enter a Mormon center, you will be asked for your name and address. Soon after you get home you can be sure to have a Mormon missionary at your door.

And why do the Jehovah’s Witnesses have more success than Adventists? Years ago I had a talk with dr. Anne van der Meiden, a theologian and a specialist in the area of religious communication. His PhD dissertation dealt with the manner in which Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘win’ their converts. He believes their success is largely due to the absoluteness of their message. If you have heard the message of the Watchtower Society, you have no choice but to accept it, if you do not want to risk damnation. I asked him what he thought would be the best mission strategy for Adventists. He told me Adventists will have a problem if they are too reluctant to tell the people they will definitely be lost if they do not accept the Adventist message. Why, after all, would they want to take this awkward detour via Adventism, if the Lord is willing to accept them anyway?

It would seem to me that Adventists can learn more from the Mormons than from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not, as far as their theology is concerned. Adventists, I believe, have a far more coherent and convincing theology than the two other movements. But dealing very carefully with all contacts and ensuring that every Adventist church is a good place to be, are absolute priorities. On both counts, in many places, there is still a lot of improvements to be made.



[1]  Ronald Lawson, Ryan T. Cragun, Fritz Guy, ‘Mormons, Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Three “American Originals” and How They’ve Grown’, Spectrum, Summer 2013, pp. 59-73.

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Communicating with youth in 1967

 

I am not very good in keeping my study tidy, even though I often plan to better my life. Piles of book and papers tend to form quickly all around me. But when my wife stays home while I am on a trip, she avails herself often of the opportunity to create some order. She is reticent in touching too many things on my desk, since she knows I would not be happy about that. But she tries to rearrange the piles of books and papers that have formed on the floor, and makes sure that the vacuum cleaner reaches the dust in the corners of my room. Sometimes unexpected discoveries are made.

When she tried to sort some things out, a little over a week ago, the 1967 July issue of the journal for Dutch Adventist youth (the Jonge Advent Heraut; literally translated: the Junior Advent Herald) was found between a few folders with documents. The very neatly printed black and white journal of 24 pages on A5-format was completely dedicated to the youth congress of that year.

At the time, now over 45 years ago, the tradition of having an annual youth congress already existed. It was always held in Utrecht. The congresses I remember were held in the ‘Kunsten en Wetenschappen’ building on the Mariaplaats in central Utrecht, and later in the temporary building Tivoli, situated at the Lepelenburg. At first I participated as a member of the youth club, where as, quite soon, I became gradually involved with the program.

In 1967 pastor K.C. van Oossanen was the youth director of the Netherlands Union. He was assisted by two other leaders (of the two ‘conferences’ which were still in existence): H.J. Smit and P. van Drongelen. I was a non-ordained pastor in the province of Friesland, and was stationed in Sneek, but became more and more involved with youth projects. It was not very long until I would move to our educational center ‘Oud Zandbergen’ in Huis ter Heide.

The youth paper was edited by K.C. van Oossanen. Only a small privileged group called him by his first name, ‘Karel’. It took some time until I also acquired that privilege. This, however, still was the time in Holland when only surnames were used! The first article in this issue—no fewer than 11 pages—reported on the youth congress. Its was signed by ‘a visitor.’ As time has gone by I have seen sufficient literary products of K.C. van Oossanen to be able to say with a fair degree of certainty that behind this ‘a visitor’ the hand of the chief editor is clearly visible.

The second article (eight pages of small print) provided the verbatim text of a sermon preached by dr. B.B. Beach. At that time Beach was the education director of the ‘division’ of which the Netherlands Union was a part. R. Bruinsma—even the first name of a young non-ordained pastor of 25 could not be mentioned—was the translator. This is also clear from the full page picture on which dr. Beach exhorts the audience with his characteristic gesture of his index finger pointing to audience. I stand next to him. Both of us have gained considerable weight over the years. After 45 years it was still pleasing to read that ‘R. Bruinsma provided an excellent translation.’ May my vanity be forgiven.

I have re-read the sermon. It is rather lengthy for a youthful audience and today the language sounds rather formal, but apart from that, the sermon would be well worth listening to today.

Our way of communicating, however, has thoroughly changed. Who today would want to publish a journal for youth, calling them ‘young heralds’? I suppose many young people might even wonder what a ‘herald’ is. Who would nowadays want to publish a journal for the youth in black and white, with 24 pages of almost exclusively small print, and with a main article of 6,000 words? Of course, I was well aware that today’s ways of communicating are not quite the same as those we used 45 years ago. But this unexpected archeological discovery in many study uniquely reminded me how big the difference is between then and now.  (PS: And who knows what might come to light when I decide to really reorganize my books and papers?)

 

 

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