‘To polder’

 

The choice of my topic for this week causes some problems for the English version. It is about a topic with a heading that is derived from the Dutch substantive ‘polder’.  A ‘polder’ is a piece of land that has been reclaimed from the water and is protected by dikes (also often spelled as ‘dykes’), since the land lies below sea level. The Dutch have taken the word ‘polder’ and have created a verb ‘polderen’—to polder—that refers to a model of decision making that, in spite of a plurality of opinions, wants to arrive at a consensus-based decision.

It is a concept that appeals to me. Partly, this may be a matter of emotion. I am fond of the polder, of this mostly (but not exclusively) Dutch method of ‘making’ land where once there was only water. I grew up in a village, some 35 kilometers north of Amsterdam, that was built on a strip of land between four lakes. Between the thirteenth and the seventeenth century these lakes were turned into polders. Since five years I live in a town that is built on the bottom of a much newer polder, the Flevopolder. Only half a century ago it was part of a large body of water, the Zuiderzee (or, since  1932, called IJsselmeer after a dike closed this lake off from the sea).

Many people find polders rather boring. Everything is flat, often there is not much to see or to experience, they say. You have to be satisfied with a simple system of straight canals and narrow roads. And the wind is always blowing stronger than elsewhere. But others, like me, love the polder. They love the fact that you can always see in the distance; they love the greenness and the open space; the beautiful skies and the windmills (to the extent that these have survived the centuries). Polders are often unique landscapes that have much to offer. The Beemsterpolder (one of the four polders near the village where I lived as a child) is now recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

How the verb ‘to polder’ came to be used in the way it is used today, is not totally clear. The best explanation I have been able to find is that the making of a ‘polder’ in past centuries required a far reaching degree of cooperation of various stake holders with very differing interests. Making a polder and making the new land suitable for agriculture and for habitation, required huge amounts of planning, many different skills, years of hard labor of a great many people, and enormous amounts of capital. The makers of a polder were truly required ‘to polder’ together.

The recent agreements between the Dutch social partners and the government that led to a comprehensive long-term agreement, is a good example of the poldering-model that time and again had brought satisfying results.

However, there are quite a few people in Dutch society that frown upon this ‘poldering’; they feel it is a sign of weakness to have lengthy discussions about a particular issue with the final result that there is a colorless compromise, in which no one party sees all its wishes fulfilled. If you are negotiating, they say, you must persist until you have reached one hundred percent of your goal. You must stand for the things you believe in and not be content with vague compromises. True, if parties negotiate, they cannot all win. Unavoidably, there will be winners and losers. That may be tough, but, in any case, the results are clear-cut.

Undoubtedly, there are occasions when you have to fight for your convictions, when you will have to say ‘no’ to every form of compromise—whatever be the cost. I believe, however, that in most cases it is much better to follow a process of give and take in an attempt to find solutions. This is true in the political area, especially in a country like the Netherlands, where none of the political parties can hope to reach a majority position. I admire politicians who are willing to work with others—including their political opponents, and want to strive for what is most feasible.  In many instances this also applies to a faith community. Far from every decision has to do with unchanging biblical principles. Most often factors as culture, history and personal preference play a major role. The process of ‘poldering’ seems to be, in many cases, a truly Christian way to remove barriers and create cooperation.

In summary:  It makes me feel good when I drive through a ‘polder’, and it has often given me great pleasure when in my work in the church I have seen the positive results of ‘poldering’.

 

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Looking back

 

The past week was a week with a lot of history. Since yesterday, after ten years of intensive and costly renovation, the famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is open to the public. Finally, people can once again admire the famous paintings (that were for a long time stored away or lent to other museums), as well as numerous historical artifacts. By chance, yesterday I also found in my mailbox my new museum card that will allow me unlimited entrance to most Dutch museums during the next twelve months. One of my future visits will certainly be to the Rijksmuseum. I can hardly wait.

This was also the week in which Margareth Thatcher died. As expected, public reactions were very mixed. They are still many British—and other—people who idolize her, but, even today, there are many others who are horrified when they think of her. I belong to that latter category. When (from 1994 until 2001) I worked and lived in Great Britain, her period as prime minister was, fortunately, already something of the past. But I vividly remember the many hot discussions with one of my closest colleagues. He was appalled by my Labour sympathies. I, on the other hand, found it very difficult to understand how someone could combine his Christian views with the kind of politics that divided people in the way Thatcher’s policies did. I certainly do not approve of throwing a party in the streets because of the death of the Iron Lady, but I can well understand how she continues to evoke many negative feelings with very many people.

And then, last week it was exactly twenty years ago that the massacre took place in Waco (Texas, USA), and the American authorities stormed the headquarters of the Branch Davidians with some seventy dead people as the awful result. It is still, after two decades, not clear what exactly happened, and whether there had not been a more peaceful way to end the standoff. Currently a symposium is held in the city of Waco, by a Baptist institution (Baylor University), where experts will once more try to analyze the Waco-event.

For Seventh-day Adventists ‘Waco’ is a sad episode that we simply want to forget. The followers of David Koresh belonged to a small sect that had been spawned by the Adventist Church, and most of his disciples were still officially members of the Adventist Church. Some important lessons must be drawn from the terrible events in Waco. In the first place, Waco was, especially in its initial phase, a horrible public relations disaster for the Adventist Church. For days the church had no clear communication strategy how to deal with such a calamity. It took far too much time before the church had a clear message for the media. But, more importantly, it is important that we do not forget how an extreme version of a weird apocalyptic message may, through a brain washing process, lead towards dangerous fanaticism or even religious madness. Also today we see examples of men and women who confuse people with their bizarre interpretations of biblical prophecy, and put them on a road that can easily lead towards a new Waco!

And finally, the day of tomorrow will provide me with another opportunity to look back to the past. I will meet two colleagues, who, like me, have retired, and with whom I spent—some fifty years ago—a summer in Sweden. Marc Cools, who is Flemish and now lives in Luxembourg, Dieter Versteegh and myself will meet in a restaurant near Utrecht to share our memories of this Swedish adventure. All three of us studied at Newbold College and had to find a way to earn enough money for our studies. At the time, canvassing (selling books from door to door) in Sweden was a popular method among Adventist students, to relatively quickly make a neat sum of money. Many Swedes, especially in the countryside, were willing to assist foreign students through the purchase of a book. In most parts of the world the colporteur system has now long been abandoned by the Adventist Church. But there was a time when it was regarded as a useful way to distribute Adventist books and magazines, while it was economically quite advantageous for the church (and for the three of us). I hated every moment of this work, but knew it was the only way I could hope to earn enough for a full year in college. However, after half a century the pleasant memories predominate. Tomorrow, while enjoying a good meal, we intend to savor these for a few moments.

 

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A quiz, a book, and an interview

 

A quiz. On Thursday evening one of the national Dutch television stations broadcasts a quiz program that I like to watch. Two duos must answer 12 general knowledge questions. If they do not know the answers they may search in a number of digital and non-digital sources. With the initial letters of the 12 responses they must then form a word.  This past week I was a little surprised when the first duo consisted of two men, who, as they were introduced, told the viewers that they were each happily married with a man. In the not too distant past such a detail would not have been permitted on national tv, but today this does not cause any problem.

A book. In the past week I read the most recent book of the American crime novelist Elizabeth George. So far, I have missed none of her books. Believing the Lie—that appeared in paperback a few months ago–once again is a real page-turner. Inspector Linley is, once more, the main character, assisted by Barbara Havers and the St. James couple. They have become ‘regulars’ in Elizabeth George’s books, but through the years the plots ands subplots of her books have become more ingenious and complex. On that score Believing the Lie does certainly not disappoint.

However, as I was reading, I realized how the world in which the inspector and his assistant must solve their crimes, is changing. I have the impression that gradually the books contain a somewhat heavier dose of sex. In addition, different aspects of our current society, that were absent in earlier books, have now become part of the story.  In her last book Elizabeth George writes about the desire for motherhood of two women, with surrogacy as a possible solution. We are also confronted with a man who leaves his wife and begins a relationship with another man. The popular novelist apparently feels that these things will not negatively influence the sale of her newest book.

An interview.  The famous Adventist neurosurgeon Ben Carson is more present in the media than ever before. The black doctor has become well known, because of his medical achievements, but also through his books and his appearances on Ophrah and other talk shows. He tells in his books and television appearances about his childhood and youth in a poor one-parent family, and how he overcame all the odd and became a renowned medical specialist. The 61-year old Carson will soon retire. There are persistent rumors that he may want to try for the presidency of the United States. In the past few weeks he has been more visible in the media than ever before. Many of his (conservative) political ideas seem to be popular. Perhaps the American public will quickly get used to the fact that, after a Mormon presidential candidate, a Seventh-day Adventist will try to reach the highest post in the US. This past week, however, dr. Carson had to apologize profusely because of his negative remarks on the Fox news show about homosexuality and same-sex marriages. His comments were quite ‘kosher’ when judged according to the official documents of his church, but for many viewers they were totally unacceptable.

It would not be difficult to add many more items to these three recent encounters with the phenomenon of homosexuality. And one does not have to be a prophet to predict that the topic will rise further on many agendas. The Adventist Church will need to enter into an honest and open dialogue, internally and externally. Just continuing to shout from the rooftops that all same-sex relationships are sinful, and that homosexual people must simply have the will power to live a celibate life, is not good enough. It is a point of view that will cause the church endless problems. And it is a standpoint that leaves many of its members mercilessly out in the cold.

Does this mean that the biblical ideal of a monogamous heterosexual relationship is totally outdated? I do not think so. But in our imperfect world the biblical ideal (as it was ‘from the beginning’) is out of reach for many. When I read the Bible I discover how God showed understanding when his ideal was not always achieved. (I think, for instance, about God’s attitude towards polygamy in Bible times.) The Adventist Church, to mention another example, continues to condemn divorce on biblical grounds. But at the same time it has found a way to deal with divorce in such a way that those who have seen their marriage fail, may have an other chance of marital happiness.

I do not have all the answers. But I hope my church will in the near future find a way to deal in a more charitable manner with the phenomenon of homosexuality. Of one thing we can be sure: the topic will not disappear any time soon. And if Ben Carson becomes an official presidential candidate, he will yet have to answer many questions in countless interviews about same-sex relationships. I hope his church will help him to formulate better answers than he gave in his recent Fox-news interview.

 

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Baalbek and Easter

 

 

[Beirut, Saturday afternoon, March 30, 2013] Last Tuesday had a bitterly cold start for me in Zeewolde, but the day ended in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, where at the time of my arrival, around 9 pm, local temperature was still about 20 degrees Celsius. That is where this blog is written, in a not very cheery hotel room at the third floor of Hotel Eden. Why this hotel has been graced with this name is, after four days, still unclear to me.  However, the greatest part of my time I spend during this week, not in my hotel room, but in the auditorium and lecture rooms of Middle East University—the Adventist institution of higher learning that, since a few years, has the privilege of calling itself a university. [This gives me a lot of satisfaction, since I played a role in that development. At the time when I worked in the church’s regional office in England, the church in Lebanon was under the umbrella of this office. I requested, and after a long wait, received, together with a few other persons, an audience with the president of the Lebanese Republic. Our purpose was, among a few other things, to plead for university status of the institution.  And this proved to be successful!

This week the university (MEU) organizes a conference with some sixty Adventist theologians from over a dozen European countries in attendance. The theme of  the conference is: ‘The translatable gospel’. There is hardly a more suitable place for such a conference than the Middle East. How do you ‘translate’ the Christian gospel in a region of the world with millions of people who are hostile to Christianity? Or where, at most, there are some groups of Christians that are, at best, tolerated. And, of course, that is not all. A major part of the world is highly secularized. There the church finds itself in heavy water as millions turn away from the institutionalized church. How do you ‘translate’ the gospel for these people? And how do you do this for the younger generation that, as a rule, has so little interest in faith and church? And then: How do you ‘translate’ the Adventist version of the Christian faith? How does this translation process take place? How can you be sure that this ‘translation’ remains true to the original?

 

During the past few days I heard a number of fascinating lectures about this topic. I have made a contribution with a presentation that defended the view that not all ‘translations’ of the gospel—not even those in our own circle—need to be fully identical, since none of us can claim to posses the full Truth. The title of my presentation was: ‘Diversity as a Biblical Value.’

Yesterday we spent a major part of the day on an excursion to Baalbek in the Beka valley—the area that saw heavy fighting during the civil wars of a few decades ago. We were given a tour through the immense temple complex. Through the years I have seen quite a few ruins and reconstructions of ancient temples, but the (mostly) Roman Baalbak temple is one of the most impressive. There the Baal was worshiped, the pagan god we so frequently meet in the Old Testament.  In Roman times Baal was replaced by the Roman gods. It took as buck to the world into which the early Christians had to ‘translate’ their message. Walking through the vast remains of this ancient temple complex you realize that we, in the twenty-first century, are not the first, nor the only ones, who have this ‘translation’ challenge.

I realized this even stronger when, upon our return from the excursion, I got talking with the Lebanese guide, a young woman in (I think) her late thirties. She told me she was working on her Ph.D in social sciences. She made her living at this moment in time as a tourist guide. I must say: she was very good at that. The cross around het neck suggested a Christian connection. When I probed this a little, she told me she had also started some theological studies. She was trying to learn Syriac, the language that is still used by the Maronite Christians in their liturgy. Fortunately, I remembered that the Maronites belong to a relatively small church, that dates from the fifth century, which is ‘eastern’ in mentality and form, but recognizes the pope in Rome as the head of the church. The conversation was not long enough to find out about the depth of her interest for the faith of her parents and ancestors. But it brought the theme of our conference very closely home to me: How could I possibly ‘translate’ my version of Christianity to communicate it to this Lebanese, Maronite woman in such a way that she might understand what I would want to say and grasp the importance of it?

As conference participants we hardly realized that yesterday was ‘Good Friday’. For a few moments a Roman-Catholic procession through the streets of the Christian area of Beirut, reminded us of it.  And while we were walking through Roman temple complex in Baalbek, suddenly from the ‘new’ town of Baalbek (which is partly Christian), a hymn sung by a male voice was heard. It was amplified to the extent that it could be heard in most of the town. It was unbelievably beautiful. The guide told us that the hymn was about the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and was sung because it was good Friday, an important day for all Christians. But we, Adventist theologians, paid little attention. We were intently looking at old stones and ancient pillars!

[Fortunately, the worship service of this morning was devoted to the Easter theme. Dr. Daniel Duda, the education-coordinator of the Adventist church in a major part of Europe, preached on the topic of ‘Easter Saturday’. It was a most inspiring Easter message.]

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Mixed feelings

 

Saturday evening, March 23, 2013] Today a phase of my life ended. It sounds more dramatic than it, in fact, is. When in September 2011 I accepted the job of president of the Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxembourg, I knew it would be for a limited period. I agreed to do it for about a year. Well, it became a period of a year and a half and I had to be firm to ensure that it would not be longer. I began with a lot of doubt. Was it wise to step into this adventure? No one could be found who was either able or willing to be the president. Would it be possible for me, as a retired foreigner, to function in this assignment and, in fact, get something accomplished?

I have been more than someone who for a short time was simply  minding the shop. I have tried to get a number of things on the rails and have done my best to improve relationships, for instance between the conference board and the pastors. I have a feeling that a few things have succeeded. But I am also aware that there are still many challenges and that, of course, I have also made my share of mistakes. It was with mixed feelings that today I said ‘good bye’ to the church in the Belgian-Luxemburg Federation. During a special festive Sabbath for all church members in the conference, I handed the responsibilities to Jeroen Tuinstra. And thus the church in this part of Europe finally has a regular new president, rather than someone who serves ad interim. And once again it is a Dutchman.

Yes, it was with mixed feelings. I must admit that it was not always easy and straightforward. My experience in church work helped me a great deal, but there were moments when the challenges were quite unique. I knew, of course, that there are differences in mentality and culture between the Netherlands and Belgium. I have, through the years, noted that dealing with other cultures can often be more difficult when those cultures are outwardly more or less the same, but are quite different beneath the surface. That is why, for instance, it can be confusing for an American to have to work together with an Australian. They look the same, but they do not always react in the same way in a particular situation. Similartly, is was surprising (and fascinating) to experience how much Belgians and Dutch people are alike, and yet differ from each other.

I noticed in the past eighteen months that I do no longer have unlimited energy, and that, as a result, the task was somewhat heavier than I had expected. However, because of the kind of person that I happen to be, I had the tendency to focus on numerous things that another ‘temporary’ president would have put on the ‘to-do’ pile of his successor.

But I also noted how surprisingly welcome I was, and how (to me somewhat unexpectedly) positive my colleagues in the office and the churches cooperated with me and were prepared to initiate new things. Of course, I do not pretend that I have become loved and appreciated by everyone. I am sure that some members of the Belgian church have not always understood my humor, and I know that there are some who think that I am a liberal rascal. Often that judgment is not made on the basis of any real attempt to understand what I have said and written. But, I am not going to lose much sleep over this. Today I could once again experience in the reactions of many people that I had been accepted and became a real part of the church in Belgium and Luxemburg.

My successor, Jeroen, ‘steps into a warm bath’. Of course, he is not a younger copy of me and he is going to have a different approach to things. He has other (and, possibly, more) talents than I have, and he is bound to make other mistakes than I have made. It will take some getting used to for him and for his colleagues, and for the church in general. He will discover how complicated the church in Belgium and Luxemburg can sometimes be, but also how much potential there is.

I have been asked to still be involved with a few issues in the coming months. And I will also have the privilege to attend the Franco-Belgian Union session as a special delegate, at the end of April. And if Jeroen wants to send me a mail from time to time, and wants to know why in the world I wrote a particular letter, or how I could possibly have made such a stupid proposal, he knows that I am rather prompt in responding to mail messages! But he does not need to be afraid that I did not really say ‘good bye’.

Now that he retire for the second time, I hope to have a bit more time ‘for myself’, for my wife and for our relatives and friends. And I sense there are some books that need to be written . . . On Monday I will be home all day (apart from a dental appointment). But on Tuesday morning I leave for Beirut (Lebanon) for about a week. I will report on this in my next blog.

Finally, Jeroen, I wish you all the best. I wish you God’s abundant blessings and a lot of inspiration. Enjoy the ‘frites’, and also the way in which the people in Belgium and Luxembourg  will (both figuratively and literally) embrace you. For a reserved Dutchman that takes a bit of getting used to!

 

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