Might God surprise us?


For a few hours I doubted last Tuesday whether, after the two-day meeting of the administrative committee of the Adventist Church in France and Belgium, I would be able to leave Paris. The massive amounts of snow in the North of France had caused an enormous chaos on the roads between Paris and Lille, and most flights and trains from the French capital were cancelled. But I was lucky. Around three p.m. a Thalys train at the Gare-du-Nord appeared from somewhere and it was announced that passengers for Brussels could board. It was not clear when the train was to depart and how long the journey would take. But, lo and behold, after a little more than a half hour the train began to move at a somewhat reduced speed and we made the trip to Brussels without any problems. As a result I was in time for my evening meeting at the conference office in Brussels.

The events of this week in Rome were, of course, a lot more interesting. When at the end of the second day of the conclave the white smoke ascended from the chimney, the journalists –some of them were clearly not great experts on the subject—were faced with the challenge to keep talking for an hour about unimportant details, and to speculate about who had been elected as the new pope. But then, there was the surprise: an Argentinian pope, who had chosen the name Franciscus I. A Jesuit!  And, once again, someone who is already quite old. [Years ago Samuele Bacchiocchi, the well known Adventist expert on Catholicism, had predicted that one day Bergoglio might have a good chance to be chosen as pope.]

I am often struck by the similarities between the Roman Catholic Church and the Adventist Church. Both denominations have a hierarchical structure, with one powerful person as the top leader. The Catholic Church has traditionally elected an Italian as its leader, with the exception (until now) of a Pole and the German Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI). The Adventists have traditionally chosen an American, with one exception: the previous general conference president (Jan Paulsen), who was a Norwegian. The Catholic Church has now opted for someone from a non-western country. It does not require much prophetic insight to predict that the next general conference president will, in all likelihood, also be a non-western person.

I am curious to see Adventist comments on this papal election. I assume that quite a few ominous conclusions will be drawn from the fact that this 266th pope is a Jesuit.  For Jesuits have never been very popular among Adventists. And, no doubt, if there will be any positive reforms or drastic changes, these will be interpreted as mere window dressings. I have seen on the internet the first reactions in that direction.

I prefer an attitude of ‘wait and see’. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was born on December 17, 1936, has in the choice of his papal name been inspired by the founder of the Franciscan Order from the 12th century, but maybe also a little by the famous Spanish Jesuit missionary Franciscus Xaverius, who went to China in the 16th century to proclaim the gospel—and who had concepts of missionary work that were rather progressive for his time.

Will this new pope surprise the world, as some fifty years ago John XXIII surprised the world by convening the Second Vatican Council? Will he cause a fresh wind to blow through his church, or must we look forward to more of the same?

Adventists must continue to critically follow the events in Rome. But it is also important not to be too sure of the all details of the end-time scenario. Almost three millenniums ago God surprised the prophet Jonah by changing his mind with regard to the city of Nineveh. Who knows how God might yet surprise us in the twenty-first century! After all, God often is a God of surprises.


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Fear of death

One thought often leads to the next. That was also the case when I started writing this blog in the Thalys hi-speed train from Schiphol airport to Paris. Last Friday morning I visited a bookshop and bought a book that was published late last year. It is by someone called Ebbe Rost van Tonningen. It is a rather fascinating book by someone who needed to deal with the past. His father was a prominent pro-German politician, prior and during World War II. He died in the high security prison in Scheveningen, near the Hague, just after the end of the war. The exact circumstances of his death have never been disclosed. His mother, frequently nicknamed ‘the black widow’, remained a fervent defender of Nazism, until her death a few years ago. As a result she often was in the news—always in a very negative way. Ebbe did (and does) not share in most of the convictions of his parents, but he happens to share infamous surname.  This has greatly impacted on his entire life, and that is what the book is about. During this past weekend I read about three quarters of the book with intense interest.

As I was reading, I remembered a television interview with an elderly (retired) Dutch politician, Willem Aantjes, that I saw a few days ago. At one time he was a prominent leader in the Social-Christian party. He might have gone on to become our prime minister. But his career ended abruptly when evidence was discovered that Aantjes had been a member of a pro-German organization. Later on it appeared that things were not quite as bad as had first been suggested, but his reputation was destroyed. Instead of becoming a prime minister, he became the chief of the national Camping Organization.

The interview with Aantjes caught my attention in particular when he was asked some very personal questions. The journalist asked him whether he was afraid of death. I had expected a firm ‘no’, as Aantjes has always presented himself as a fervent believer. However, he hesitated maybe ten second before he said: ‘Yes, I am’. In reply to further questions he explained that people with his strict orthodox Calvinistic background will never lose this feeling of uncertainty about their ultimate destination. God does as he has predestined. Has he elected you to be saved? You can only hope so, but you can never be totally sure.

As I was listening to this interview, my thoughts went back to a conversation I had some months ago with a medical specialist who had treated many patients from a (religiously) very conservative region in Holland. He is not a Christian himself but did not avoid talking with me about the topic of faith. He told me that he had been utterly amazed about the fact that so many terminal patients from that region are so terribly afraid of death.

This is certainly food for thought. How does one explain the fact that people who faithfully attend church every Sunday—often twice—continue to doubt whether in the end God will accept them?  Of course, there is something they worry about, while it does not bother this doctor: the idea that you can be forever ‘lost, and may burn in an everlasting hell in stead of enjoying the eternal blessings of heaven.

I have no idea how often people around me think of death. I cannot say that it is constantly on my mind, but I cannot help but think quite often about the fact that some day my life will end. When you have become a septuagenarian, the rest is downhill. . . .  But does that really frighten me? That is not an easy question to answer. Fortunately, I am rooted in a Christian tradition that has concluded that an eternally burning hell is not a sound biblical idea. But, yes, I believe a person can be ‘lost’. However, I also believe that, if ‘deep down’ I have chosen to place my trust in God, things will be all right. Not because I am good enough. Even though I think that I am a reasonably good human being, I know that, in and of myself I am not good enough to be accepted by the Lord. Not even if I were ten times as good as I am now. But, fortunately, what counts is that God is good enough, and therefore I do not need to share in the fear of Aantjes and the people in the Dutch Bible belt.

Surely, I do not find it a pleasant idea that there comes a day when I will be no longer there. This is not a comfortable thought when you still enjoy life and are in a reasonably good physical shape. Naturally, sometimes you wonder whether you (or someone else) might one day discover the first signs of Parkinson’s Disease or whether you will have to fight against some form of ugly cancer. But, ending your life suddenly, without warning, through a massive heart attack, also has its disadvantages. Whatever happens, according to the Christian faith, death remains an enemy that is to be respected. But that same Christian faith tells Aantjes and the people in the Dutch Bible belt, that this foe has been defeated for everyone who makes a choice for Christ.

The internet in the Thalys is too slow to ‘load’ this blog. I will do this in a few hours from now, when I have arrived in Hotel Manet—about which I have written (not too positively) at some earlier occasions in this blog. But in the meantime I will try to finish the last seventy pages of the book by Ebbe Ros van Tonningen!


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The papal cat


During the past week we have learned a lot more about the daily life of the pope, who by now is pope-emeritus. The media have at length reported about the pope’s physical condition, the red shoes of calf leather, the way he should henceforth be addressed, his ring, and even the amount of his pension (2,500 euros per month).

There were, however, two details that caught my eye in a special way. He will live two months in a rather nice mansion outside Rome, before he will move into a small, renovated apartment in a convent. He will take his books with him, but also his piano and his cat. I had vaguely registered at some time in the past that Benedictus loves to play the piano, but I did not know that he is also a lover of cats. I checked this last detail, and, indeed, the pope has always had one or more cats. Remarkably enough, when he wanted to bring his own piano into the Vatican, he met a lot of resistance, and that was even more so when he wanted to have a pet in the Vatican—which seems to be against a rule that all inhabitants of the Vatican must obey.

This kind of details make Joseph Ratzinger, or (emeritus)pope Benedict XVI, a real human being of flesh and blood, and not just a representative of a powerful institution, for which one may or may not have much admiration. It seems, however, that is is important to make that distinction. When I read some mails that were sent to me over the last week from Poland, it appears that some (many?) of my fellow Adventist believers, think that one should not write kind things about the pope, since this creates confusion. They feel that one cannot see the man without also seeing the institution. And we know how terrible this institution is . . . Etc., etc.

It is, of course, true that one cannot fully detach a person from the official role he/she has played, or is playing—especially when it concerns people who have been, or are, in leadership positions at whatever level.  But it remains important, I believe, to try to first of all see the persons, rather than institution they may represent.  That also applies to Benedict XVI.

History will judge the seven-year pontificate of the pope who has just resigned. Many felt he was too orthodox, too rigid. Often people said that the pope did not understand the times in which he lived and was too intolerant with regard to certain moral issues. I know enough of the history of the Catholic Church and of the way in which that church is governed; I know enough of the theology and the political aspirations of Catholicism, so that I am certainly not on the point of converting to the Church of Rome. And I doubt whether this pope will go down in the history books as a strong and effective pope.

But when I see Pope Benedict, I do not only see a man dressed in splendid liturgical garments, who says a mass on the St. Peter’s square, and who tells more than a billion believers that they should not take the pill or use condoms. I do not only see a man who officiates at beatifications or who has a warped understanding of the role of Mary.

I also see a man who is obviously sincere in what he believes. I see someone who has made big sacrifices and who has lived for his ideal. I see a man who loves his books and loves to write. And I see a man who likes to get behind his piano and who welcomes it when his black/white cat Chico jumps on his lap.  And I see a person who has friends and relatives who call him Joseph.

I hope our Lord will eventually welcome Joseph Ratzinger in his heavenly home. And I hope I will have the chance to ask Ratzinger how it was possible that he stuck to some of his ideas and did not read his Bible more carefully. And there are 1001 other things I would want to know from him.

Of course, I do not know for sure that I will then meet him. It depends on two things. Firstly, it depends on whether or not I will be accepted by God, in spite of all my shortcomings. And, secondly, it depends on whether or not Benedict will be admitted by God, in spite of his false ideas and in spite of all the mistakes he made as pope Benedict and as a man called Joseph. But one thing is sure: God does not want anything more dearly than to welcome both me and Joseph into his eternal home (whether or not my Polish fellow-believers like it or not).

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[Friday evening, 22 February)  After a rather relaxed start of this week, I had a few pretty productive days. Sometimes there are days when the creative juices do not want to flow, but this week was quite OK.  Apart from dealing with a major backlog of e-mail and a few articles for the information publication of the Belgian Adventist Church, I wrote a fresh sermon about which I feel quite good. (I hope the members of my home church will share this judgment when they hear me preach it tomorrow.) And I worked on the paper that I will read in about four weeks from now, during a congress of European Adventist theology teachers in Beirut (Lebanon). I had already done a considerable amount of preparatory reading and I had begun to write, but this week I was able to concentrate on this project and to produce a more or less final version of this paper.

Next month’s presentation will be entitled: : Diversity—a biblical paradigm. I will try to show how ‘diversity’ runs as a clear thread through the Bible and the Christian teachings. I will deal briefly with the diversity in the godhead (the concept of the Trinity), the diversity in the God-man Jesus Christ, the diversity in the origin and the content of the Bible, the diverse metaphors and images that are used to clarify various aspects of the atonement, and diversity as a characteristic of the people of God and their mission. If diversity is so clearly used by God to reveal the various aspects of what He wants to tell us, and if we will apparently benefit from seeing things from different perspectives—would that not mean that Christian theologians (including Adventist theologians) should also regard diversity in their midst as something very positive?

While I was writing, I remembered my first hesitant steps on the path of theology. During my first year at Newbold College we had a class that was called ‘harmony of the gospels’. The class was taught by a very senior teacher, whose movements were so dangerously uncontrolled, that we were in constant fear that he would collapse before our eyes. He wanted to impress upon us that the gospels did not differ as much from each other as many theologians wanted us to believe. It was just a matter of being able to see how the four different stories of Jesus’ life and work seamlessly fitted together. In order that we should be convinced of the harmony of the gospels, we were ordered to cut up the four gospels from two old Bibles and glue all the small segments in the right order, following a three-year time line, and using different columns for the parallel sections. Fortunately we had access to the (then rather recent) Adventist Bible Commentary and discovered that one of the authors of volume 5 had already done all this work for us.

Less than two years later I was at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University in the US, to work on my ‘masters’. There I took the class ‘New Testament Introduction’, with the charismatic dr. Sakae Kubo as one of my teachers. (For various reasons I have always admired this man, in particular because of the way in which he later faced unreasonable criticism and opposition.)

Kubo wanted us to understand the diversity in the New Testament: the different approaches of the different authors. And he wanted us to have an open eye for the problems the critical reader will encounter. How do you, for instance, know that Jesus’ active career, between his baptism and his crucifixion, was a little over three years? One is able to come to this conclusion from some remarks by John, about the annual feasts that Jesus attended in Jerusalem. However, if we did not have John, the other gospels may have led us to think that Jesus’ ministry lasted just about a year. And how was one to understand the two different stories about a ‘miraculous feeding’?  Did Jesus give bread and fishes to 4.000 or to 5.000 men? Were there two separate occasions when Jesus fed a multitude? Or was there just one single such event, that is communicated to us in two different versions? I can mention a host of other issues that dr. Kubo made his students aware of.

Maybe Kubo’s lectures were the crucial moment in my early theological development (in addition to my reading of James Barr’s book Fundamentalism) that sent me on the path of diversity.  And I have never left this path. No one person can have a full understanding of what God wants to tell us. We need other people to complement our own limited thinking. That was already true for the biblical authors. Why would we think that this would not be true for us?


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[Saturday evening, 16 February]  I may come to miss the rhythm of my present existence!  Having driven back to the Netherlands on Tuesday, I pointed the front of my Citroen Berlingo, with the Belgian license plate, again towards Brussels on Friday. This small diesel car has faithfully transported me in the past year or so over some 40.000 kilometers.

A week ago I attended on Saturday morning a special service of the Adventist International Church of Brussels. The service was centered on the dedication of 9 baby’s and 2 toddlers. A theater had been rented for the day to deal with the expected flood of family members and other guests. They did come in great numbers. But, unfortunately, the heating did not work and after the service of more three hours I was totally frozen. But, apart from this, it was inspiring to see a church with so much life!

Today I was the guest speaker in the Portuguese speaking church of the Belgian capital. The group that now consists of some 80 to 100 members was recently forced to move since their landlord had suddenly given them notice. Now, a new place has been found to meet on Saturdays: a small hall on the third floor of a building of which I have not been able to discover the main purpose. A kind of goods elevator brings the members and visitors to the third floor. I have been plagued by a rather nasty flu during the last two weeks and the coughing and sneezing in the aftermath of this flu made preaching a bit uncomfortable. But I could reach the end of the sermon and it was, all together, a very positive experience. It is clear that this church has a definite potential for strong further growth. The more than 40.000 Brazilians who have migrated to Belgium constitute a fertile ‘mission field’.

Next week I hope to preach in my home church in Harderwijk. In the week that follows I will just spend a few ‘working days’ in Brussels. But on Sabbath March 2 my program lists a speaking appointment in the small church of Oostende, at the Belgian North Sea coast. There I will be painfully confronted with the enormous challenge of the Adventist Church in Belgium. In the church of Oostende only a handful of ‘Belgian’ members remain. I will have a talk with them, after the service, about the question whether there is any future for their small (and dying) church.  Yes, there are also a dozen or so Russian speaking Adventists who worship in the Oostende church. But should we simply allow the church to become a ‘Russian’ church?

Many good and positive things are happening in the Adventist Church in Belgium. In 2012 the membership grew with about three percent. The income of the church increased with more than 6 percent. But everything possible will have to be done to ensure that the church also continues to attract ‘Belgian’ people.  There are many plans. The support and expertise that pastor Rudy Dingjan will bring as church planting coordinator in the coming years (as he will be spending part of his time and energy in Belgium) will be crucial.

In the meantime I have begun to de-escalate my activities in the South. I did, however, get a few mails with the message: ‘So, what will you do next?’ Some readers of this blog brought it to my attention that there is a vacancy in Rome. But would it really be a good idea to exchange my Berlingo for the popemobile?

Concerning the pope, there is something else. A few days ago an Adventist publication asked a few persons to comment on the news that there will soon be a new pope. I was one of those whom they contacted. I expressed the hope that Benedict XVI will still live long enough to give us a few more good books. And I added that it would seem a good idea that we pray that the Spirit of God may be at work during the coming conclave. But it appears that not all my fellow Adventists appreciate that remark. It seems that they feel one should not say too many friendly things about Catholic Christians.  And that the Holy Spirit would have any business at the conclave, is to these critics a very strange idea . . .

Tomorrow I have planned for a leisurely day.  With my wife, who is accompanying me this weekend in Belgium, I hope to visit Tongeren—the oldest city in Belgium, dating from Roman times. It will be a good beginning of a new and full week.

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