Short nights

 

The nights are short, here in Kramfors in the south of North-Sweden. Last night the sun set at 22.55 hr. and this morning the sun rose at 2.43 hr. But even during this short night it does not become fully dark. After about a week I tend to be fully used to this again. At home, in our bedroom in Zeewolde, our curtains darken the room completely, but in our Swedish bedroom the curtains are of a much thinner variety and let a fair amount of light into the room. During the first few nights this bothers me somewhat, but then it is OK.

One more week and we will have midsummer—always an important event in Scandinavia. In Sweden it is, in fact, the most important festive occasion of the year. Usually we travel to Sweden a bit later in the year and only once before we were lucky enough to enjoy the midsummer feast and take part in the putting up of the ‘may-tree’—in Swedish referred to as the majstång or midsommarstång. So, this will be on the program for the next weekend.

Today Kramfors celebrates the annual ‘stadsfest’. It is a mix of a fancy-fair and a market—not quite the kind of entertainment that I would go out of my way for to attend. And, in particular, on Saturdays I prefer other kinds of activities. But today I will make an exception. I do not think I can successfully explain to my two granddaughters, age 5 and 2, why grandpa and grandma, who only occasionally come to visit them, would refuse to go with them to this great local festivity. It is a topic that we might discuss with them in years to come.

It does raise, however, the question how Sabbath keepers give meaning to their Sabbath if they live in a region without any Sabbath keeping community. As far as I know, there are just a few isolated Adventists in this part of Sweden; those who are closest are a few elderly ladies at some 80 kilometers from here. Normally we  skip our Sabbath worship when we are in Sweden.  This year it will mean at least four church-free Sabbath days. It is something I definitely miss.  At home it is only at a rare occasion—at most once or twice a year—that I have the Sabbath day off and may take the chance to sleep in. But, apart from this, church attendance is a regular habit. And, to be honest, I enjoy doing the preaching myself.

I do remember how it is to be an Adventist in an environment where there are no other church members. When my parents moved in 1947 from Amsterdam to a village north of  that city, there were no Adventist churches north of the line Haarlem-Amsterdam, except an ultra-small church in Den Helder. In our village the population consisted of Dutch-Reformed, Christian-Reformed and Roman Catholic people. In addition there was one lady who had become a Jehovah Witness, and then there was the Bruinsma family, who were regarded by most as a kind a Christian-Reformed, with the peculiarity of keeping the Saturday rather than Sunday as their day of rest. It was not until the mid 1950’s that the Adventist Church in nearby Alkmaar was started. Until that time we had no opportunity for regular church attendance. Once a month the pastor from Amsterdam came to hold a service in our home.

Today will be a real ‘day of rest’ after a week of strenuous physical labor. The painting and wallpapering, in particular, took a little getting used to again, since it was many years ago when I last did that kind of work. But, if there were a real need, I would perhaps be able to earn my living with it. However, I trust that this period of physical work in my son’s home will be of limited duration!

 

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Building skills

 

In ancient times home building belonged to the basic skills of every man. Just as every woman knew how to cook and how to care for children, every man knew how to provide food for his family and how to build a house. But as time passed, human beings ‘developed’. This means that nowadays we know how to do a few things much better, but that we have lost many other skills.

Most people are no longer able to build their own house. Of course, in most countries you are not even allowed to simply start building a chicken coop. Laws regulate where people are allowed to settle and to build, and you cannot do your own construction work unless you have a stack of diplomas and have secured a load of permits. I have the impression that in this area things are not quite as over-regulated in Sweden as they are in the Netherlands, and that many Swedes—in particular outside the larger cities—have acquired considerable skills in home improvements or even extensive reconstructions.

The fact that my son ventures to undertake some major alterations to his house does not make him an exception, even though perhaps the assistance of a retired father from the Netherlands does.  A few days ago my wife and I arrived safely at our destination, some 600 kilometers North of Stockholm and today (Friday) was my first real working day.  The fortunate circumstance that I happen to be a Sabbath keeper means that I can have a slow start, as tomorrow—just after one day of labor—I will have my day of rest. (Although I must add that even yesterday was already pretty full, as we went shopping for building materials and for some extra tools.

In the past five years, since we live in a newly built apartment in Zeewolde, I have hardly touched a hammer or a saw. The only tool that I handled occasionally was a drill and even now my wife reminds me from time to time, that there are still a few holes to be drilled and a few things to be hung. So, today it felt a little unusual to operate a power screw driver and a power saw, etcetera. Tonight, a few muscles are more than a little sore.

However, apart from this (for me) somewhat unusual physical work, I hope in the next few weeks to enjoy the company of my two little grand daughters, and I expect to have time for a bit of reading and even a little ‘normal’ work. As far as this last aspect is concerned, I have begun the job of providing a new translation in contemporary Dutch of Ellen White’s book Christ’s Object Lessons. The Adventist Church in the Netherlands is planning to publish a brand new edition of this popular devotional commentary on Jesus’ parables.

And when it comes to reading: it will take me some time to go through the 600 pages of a History of the Arab World (by Eugene Rogan). It is quite amazing how little most people (myself included) know about the complicated history of the Arab world—in particular of the area we now know refer to as the Middle East. When recently I spent a week in Lebanon, I was once again confronted with the complexity of that small country, with its Christians, Muslims, Druzes and other population segments, and its utterly complex international relationships. It seemed high time to do something about my relative ignorance. But it will take a fair amount of reading  before I get to the modern history of Lebanon. At present I have not proceeded beyond the transfer of power from the Mamaluks to the Ottomans as the rulers of the Arab world.

The Dutch soap story about the Fyra seems a world away. Anyhow, my weekly trips to Belgium are now a thing of the past, and the high speed train troubles between my native country and Brussels do not bother me a great deal. This may sound a bit selfish, but so be it. For the next few weeks my focus will be on other things.

 

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An in-between-week

 

[Friday evening, 31 May]  This was a kind of ‘in-between-week’. I managed to finish a few major projects. At various times in the past six months I have been working on the English edition of the doctoral dissertation of a pastor of the United Protestant Church of the Netherlands, who also does some teaching in the theological faculty in Groningen and who has future academic aspirations. About two years ago he earned his Ph.D. degree cum laude with this dissertation. A professor at the Protestant University in Amsterdam had suggested my name to him as someone who might be able and willing to assist him with the English version of his book. Now, a few hundred hours later, the job is done and I can conclude that today I know considerably more about the differences in theological insight between Bonhoeffer and Barth. And I should add that, for the time being, I feel I know quite enough about this topic.

I was also keen to finish something else: the preparations for a sermon and four presentations that I am supposed to deliver (in German) during a congress this summer at Friedensau University—the German Adventist University near Magdeburg. The sermon is supposed to deal with the relationship between faith and everyday life, while the four presentations will focus on the attitude of the Adventist Church towards ecumenism. I am rather more at home in this area than with regard to the influences of the transcendental philosophy of Kant on Karl Barth, and Bonhoeffer’s accusation that Barth first promoted a negativism of revelation and later a positivism of revelation! I discovered that few people know what these terms actually mean.  (Nonetheless, I find it a pleasant challenge to transpose complicated texts into another language!)

This week, however, was a kind of ‘in-between-week’. A long list of things needed my attention, before my wife and I can turn the front of the car next Monday morning towards Sweden. One of these things was a visit to the eye specialist. The office that renews Dutch driving licenses has devised a very complicated process for people of 70-plus who need to renew their license. First you have to buy a 2-page form at the town hall (27,50 euro). You must take that to your doctor, who is to provide some medical information (40 euro). Next, if you have ever been diagnosed with diabetes, an eye specialist must check your eyes (66 euro) to be sure that you can see the difference between a red and a green light. At last, the documents are now in the mail and before too long I hope to receive a notice that I can get my new license at the town hall (about 30 euro). Small wonder that the average citizen does not have enough money to give the national economy the kind of boost that our prime minister is calling for.

Then I needed to have my brakes checked and had to have a hair cut (of what is left) and had to visit the lady who looks after my feet (which my health insurance pays, as they feel that people with diabetes must care well for their feet)—and then there was a whole load of other errands. Thursday afternoon, however, was a very pleasant time, as the Dutch Adventist Church had organized a ‘high tea’ for the retired pastors and their partners. On Saturday morning I am scheduled to preach in Almelo. After this I intend to drive to Brussels, where I will have a role during a special church meeting on Sunday morning. Then this ‘in-between-week’ comes to an end.

In the meantime I am gathering my energy and courage to assist my son during the next four weeks or so in fixing up his house in Sweden. It makes for a change! I am not a great lover of carpentry and painting, etc., but I am looking forward to spend a few weeks with my son and to do something substantial together with him. And, who knows, there may still be some hours left to sit under a tree, doing some reading and writing.

We plan to take three days for the trip, as we usually do.. The first day is driving to Kiel, followed by a night on the ferry to Gothenburg. De second day will, hopefully, take us to Stockholm, leaving about 600 kilometers for the third and final day. I don’t mind doing that trip even though by now I know almost every petrol station and restaurant along the route. But it is a small sacrifice if that means being a few weeks with our grand children!

 

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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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