HC

 

This year it is 450 years ago that the Heidelberger Catechism (abbreviated as HC) first appeared. It seems that this catechism if still sufficiently important to get a lot of attention during this festive event. For all those who want to know more about the ins and outs of this age-old document, a voluminous book with some 450 pages came just off the press: The Handbook of the Heidelberger Catechism (Kok Publishers, 2013). This Dutch version will soon be followed by an English and a German translation. The reader will find a wealth of information about its history, its use since the sixteenth century, its theology, etc. And for the experts the book offers a long list of relevant literature.

In the meantime I have read most of the book. I must, however, honestly admit that I have skipped some pages here and there, but I have discovered many things I did not know before, and as I read, new questions continued to arise.

I remember that my Reformed friends of the elementary school were forced to attend the weekly catechism study, taught by their local pastor. They told me that they had to learn a small section every week. The book is in question and answer form. I remember that the first question was about one’s only comfort, both in life and in death. And they knew the answer by heart: ‘Our only comfort is that we know that in life and death we belong to Jesus Christ, our Savior, with our entire body and soul. In retrospect one wonders how much 11- and 12-years old children really understood.

As I read in the Handbook about the use of the HC by 17th and 18th century missionaries in the Dutch colonies, I asked myself how effective it was to try to teach ‘pagans’ the first principles of the biblical message with the use of the HC!

However, one element struck me in particular, when I thought about it a bit further. I knew quite a few things about the Heidelberger Catechism and, after my reading this week, I know more. But I realized that I hade never actually read the book itself. I looked for a copy in my book case and did indeed locate a book with the Dutch traditional Confessional Documents—the HC among them. I decided to read a major chunk of it. And so I found the (in)famous question no. 80.  There the question is asked about the difference between the Lord’s Supper and the ‘popish mass’.  In the reply to that question, today’s members of the United Church in the Netherlands are still warned that the Catholic mass is a denial of Christ’s sacrifice and is ‘a form of cursed and gruesome idolatry’.

Remarkably enough, we often tend to read about certain texts, without ever reading these texts themselves. There are plenty of people, in and outside the Adventist Church, who have a definite opinion about the person and work of Ellen G. White, but have never read anything that she wrote (although they may have several of their books in their book case). And, what is even more regrettable: many people (including pastors and other theologians) spend a lot more time reading about the Bible than in the Bible.

It would seem that the glory time of the Heidelberger Catechism is past. Even in many ultra-conservative Dutch churches the sermon about the catechism on Sunday afternoon has been abandoned. And to ensure that young people will listen to the gospel, surely other means are needed that this 450-year old book.

 

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Differences

 

I am pretty sure that on Thursday next week my church pension will be credited to my bank account. When I look back, I have to say that the church’s system functions, as far as this element is concerned, extremely well. The Adventist Church takes good care of the people who are, or have been, on the church’s payroll.

Of course, it would be nice if would be possible—now and in the coming years—to keep the pastors’ salaries and the pensions of the retirees at least at the current level. In the course of time there have been significant improvements. When I had my internship in the 1960’s in Amsterdam, I initially received a ‘salary’ of 299 guilders. After a few months this was raised to 360 guilders. It should, however, be noted that the church allowed me to buy a bicycle and also paid for the place where I could keep my church-paid vehicle overnight.

When I began my work as an assistant-pastor my salary was almost 600 guilders. Even in those days that was not much. The church salary has never become a source of riches, but presently it is quite decent. Compared with pastors of the PKN (the Protestant Church in the Netherlands) the Adventist pastors do not do too badly, even though the Adventist salary structure is a lot flatter than that of the PKN. There is a very significant difference between the amount a PKN-pastors earns at the beginning of his career and the amount he receives after 35 or 40 years of service. The differential in the Adventist Church is much smaller. The structure is also ‘flat’ in another way. Those who are ‘higher’ in the church’s hierarchy do not get a great deal more than the ‘ordinary’ pastor. As the general secretary of the Trans-European Division, and later as the president of the Netherlands Union, I received an extra 12 percent because of the special (and supposedly heavy) responsibilities.

At present the international church considers to increase the differences between the salaries of the church pastors and of those who serve the church in special capacities. The arguments for such a move do not sound very convincing to me. It seems to me, that the tradition to reward different kinds of work within the church in a rather similar way, underlines the idea (which I support) that these different kinds of work all require the same degree of commitment and all require specific training and skills.

Of course, I have long been aware of the impossibility to reward everybody in all church institutions according to a pay scale that was developed for pastors. Medical specialists, for instance, in Adventist hospitals (who more often than not are not church members) must in our Western world receive more than a pastor’s salary. However, in the USA a situation has arisen in Adventist hospitals that will give most of us ample cause to wonder. The independent journal Adventist Today has performed a remarkable feat of investigative journalism. In the recent Spring issue, that appeared about a months ago, we are told about the pay package of the 50 top administrators in USA Adventist hospitals. Each of them has an annual income of, on the average, no less than 1,3 million dollar!

I am not certain whether the well-known argument (which is also quite frequently used in the Dutch banking sector), that you have to pay a competitive wage, if you want to get top-people, is valid in this case. Anyhow, we are here far removed from the Adventist ideal that all employees in Adventist employ receive a wage that is based on the wage scale for pastors. Perhaps the time has come to detach these big, specialized institutions from the church organization. For we are here dealing with big and complicated institutions that employ mostly non-Adventist personal, that must remain economically viable, must cooperate closely with other medical institutions, and provide health care for the community around them.

Church members have no reason to worry that their contributions are partly used to pay for the exorbitant pay packages of hospital administrators. These are paid for from the income earned by the hospitals themselves.

It remains a pleasant thought that most leaders in the Adventist Church are still prepared to perform their often heavy tasks for a relatively modest compensation. The total income (salaries and taxable expenses) in 2011 of the General Conference president was 87,008 dollar (about 68.000 euro)!

Whatever be the case: I am grateful that I can be sure that in six days the treasurer of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands will transfer my monthly pension to my bank account. And, at the same time, I am much appreciative of the fact that, in final analysis, the faithful members of the church continue make this possible.

 

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Words

 

This year the prestigious Libris prize for Dutch literature was won by Tommy Wieringa. A few days ago the jury chose his novel These are the names (Dit zijn de namen) from among five books that had been nominated. Wieringa won already a few other prizes with his earlier books, but the Libris prize will give him a lot of additional fame and also a check of 50.000 euros (over 60.000 US dollars). With this prize he definitely belongs to the important contemporary Dutch authors.

I had bought the book already some four weeks ago, but had not yet started reading in it until two days ago. Now that I have read more than half of it, I am inclined to agree with the jury one hundred per cent. If you look for a fast moving story line with a lot of suspense or a juicy story like Fifty Shades of Grey, you had better give this book a miss. But for a lover of the Dutch language and for the person who wants to read an unusual, but fascinating story, this new Wieringa novel is a must.

However, besides admiration, I also feel a degree of jealousy. To be able to handle your mother tongue in such a magisterial way must be the absolute summit of satisfaction an author can have. Each sentence is worth to be read slowly, for most substantives are accompanied by carefully chosen adjectives; verbs are skillfully nuanced and every situation sketch calls forth an razor sharp image.

I was, in particular, touched by a statement of the main character of the book: Pontus Beg, a chief of police in a small Eastern-European city on the edge of the savannah. The man loves reading books on eastern philosophy, and especially works by Confucius. Beg concluded that, if Confucius were in charge of a given country, it would be his first priority to improve the way in which the people use their national language. ‘For if they do not use the language correctly’, he says, ‘they do not say what they mean. And when people do not actually say what they intend to say, no major achievements can be made. And when people do not achieve much, the arts and morality cannot prosper. And as a result, the justice system will be inadequate. And without an adequate justice system the nation does not know what to do. For that reason a country should not tolerate a sloppy use of words, for that is the all-important thing’ (p. 35).

Today I sat on a terrace near the small harbor of the town where I live, and while enjoying my coffee I was thinking about this statement by Confucius. I concluded that Confucius may well have been correct. The ability to carefully put your thoughts into words may be much more important that many people think. If you are in doubt whether or not there are lots of people who do not have this gift (or who simply do not make any effort to do a bit thinking before touting their opinion), you should from time to time visit the website of some popular newspaper (such as the Dutch Telegraaf) and look at reader comments. I do this from time to time, and I am always amazed about the sheer quantity of prejudice, verbal abuse, ignorance, insults, and utter nonsense that is hurled into digital space. Yes, perhaps there is a direct link between the verbal deficiencies of a major part of our society and many sad aspects of our contemporary world.

Well, whatever may be the case: my quality newspaper called Wieringa’s book one of the best books that has lately been written in the Dutch language. Reason enough to quickly continue my reading of it.

 

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Trauma

 

At last the moment has come! For a considerable time already, I had been planning to integrate at home the television, the internet and the telephone. Two weeks ago I, at long last, placed the order with UPC for the Horizon media box, with the various services that we think we need. UPC has told my current internet provider to end their service to me, and has also intervened to stop my telephone services via KPN. I received a nice parcel with my new toys and I have made significant progress in installing all these goodies. The media box functions as promised and I can now surf to more television channels than ever before. Certainly, there are sill some mysteries that have not yet been revealed, and so far I only partially understand how the two remote control devices for my media box and for my television can harmoniously work together. Some time next week my current internet service will be ended, and then I will find out whether the laptops of myself and of my wife will wirelessly perform at the proudly advertised speed through the media box as the center of my home wireless network.

I cannot deny that I always do these kinds of technical jobs with great trepidation. It takes a lot of time before I have a clear idea which cords must be connected where, and which buttons must then be pushed and in what order. There is a deep-seated fear that I might blow up the entire installation by some wrong move. I suspect that this anxiety is the result of a terrible trauma I suffered as a child.

In the beginning of the 1950’s our family continued to receive at regular intervals ‘care packages’ from a benevolent person in the United States. At the time, an extensive charity program had been established to facilitate the sending of parcels with clothing and other items by good spirits in the US, to Dutch families that had suffered great difficulties in the Second World War and the immediate post-war period. A lady in the city of Lexington in the state of Kentucky was the regular donor of the parcels we received. Apparently, there had been some correspondence between my father (who had a fair command of the English languages) and this good lady, in which my father had indicated that our family did not possess a radio. And so, the next parcel contained among other things, a small radio.

I vividly remember how our family was united around the table in our living room when my father dismantled the parcel and unwrapped the radio. I can still see the radio before me: a small brown box of Bakelite, with on the front a button to start and to stop the radio, and a much bigger knob that had to be turned around to find the various radio stations.  Since my father was an electrician by profession it presented no major challenge for him to replace the American plug with a Dutch one. When this was taken care of, the great moment had arrived. The plug was put into the socket, the on-button was pushed, the round knob at the front of the radio was turned around, and, lo and behold, there was music! But not for very long. A strange smell and some accompanying smoke, began to ascend from our precious radio and then the music stopped as abruptly as it had started only a few minutes before. The radio was irreparably damaged. We had, unfortunately, not been aware of the fact that the VS operates with a different voltage from that in Europe, and when 220 volt passed through the radio, it ended the enjoyment within a very short moment.

I remember few things from my childhood and youth that have frustrated me in the same manner. We were so happy to, at last, have a radio in our home. But the joy lasted at the very most for three minutes. Ever since I have been very careful when installing electrical appliances and equipment. Therefore, when installing my new UPC-wonder box, I proceeded with great prudence. So far, everything has gone quite well. I feel, I have reason to be optimistic with regard to the remainder of this process—encouraged by the pleasant thought that this complicated operation will bring me a financial benefit of at least 50-60 euros per month.

 

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The (not so) Golden Age

 

[Friday evening, 26 April, 2013]  Recently the Netherlands national television aired a series of documentary programs about the ‘Golden Age’  (roughly the 17the century) in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, I did not see all 13 programs, but those that I had a chance to see were superb. However, there is also another side to this period of prosperity and grandeur, and that side is portrayed in a beautiful book that I read last week. The title is (translated): People of Little Means—Small Change of the Golden Age, written  by the well known Dutch historian A. Th. Van Deursen. Earlier I dedicated a blog to two of his other books that I immensely enjoyed (31 October 2012). I also read this book with great interest.

In his book about the Golden Age van Deursen does not focus on the elite and the rulers, as was the case in the television series, and he does not write about rich merchants and Rembrandt and other master painters of that period, which brought our country so much international fame. He discusses the plight of the ‘common’ people: the workers, and the soldiers and other men and women of the lower classes. He tells us about the housing, and working conditions, the education of the common people (or the lack thereof), and informs us how the various institutions (such as the justice system and taxation, etc.) affected the great masses.

It is good to also know something about the less positive aspects of this glorious period in Dutch history. Even though one of our ex-prime ministers made an appeal to the Dutch citizens to re-awaken the VOC-spirit, it must be admitted that there were also many things in this VOC-period of which we cannot be proud.

Some things struck me, in particular, as I read this fascinating book. In the first place, it is good to see the relativity of many things. Foreign visitors of the Netherlands at that time often had much praise for the living condition in Dutch society in this time of great prosperity. They stated that these were a lot better than elsewhere in Europe. But this does not take away from the fact that, when measured against our norms (and when compared with the opulence that another part of the population enjoyed), these conditions were utterly miserable. It just depends on one’s perspective.

I was amazed to read about various aspects of taxation in this period. To have private entrepreneurs care for the gathering of taxes, and to permit them to put in their own pockets what they succeeded in getting in tax payments from the people over and beyond the amount that the government had estimated as reasonable, was hardly a method that promoted fairness and equal treatment. There were some kinds of taxes that we still know today, but some other taxes seem very strange to us. There was, for instance, an extra tax on  the wearing of costly garments by common people. The fact that commoners wore fine clothing was deemed undesirable, since it tended to obliterate the differences between the classes. This extra tax was not levied from the elite; in their case costly apparel could not be considered a luxury, but was ‘normal’!

There are numerous other things that struck me, but, in particular, the fact that many problems of today’s society seem to have a long history. People of the Golden Age were complaining bitterly about the behavior of ‘today’s youth’. And many felt that they were living in a time of intense moral decay. Is sounds like the refrain of many a litany of our time and age.

It must also be admitted that church life in the Golden Age could be far from peaceful. Maybe I should keep that in mind in the coming days. A few hours ago I arrived in a congress center near the French city of Lyon, where I will attend, as a special guest, the quinquennial session of the organization of Adventist churches in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. I recently ended my official church involvement in Belgium and Luxembourg, but I appreciate the fact that I have been invited to attend. The session faces some rather critical issues and I expect that things might become a little hot from time to time—to use euphemistic language. If that should be the case, I may be able to relativize matters somewhat by the information in van Deursen’s book about the frequent ecclesial troubles in the Golden Age. But, who knows. I may be wrong and this meeting in the coming days may turn out to be surprisingly peaceful!

 

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