Transfers

 

The world of soccer is largely unknown to me. And, to be honest, that does not worry me in the least. But as someone who eagerly follows the daily news, I do also pick up news items about soccer. For a long time I have been utterly amazed about the exorbitant salaries of some of the star players. As far as I am concerned they are welcome to a nice salary, and if that enables them to buy a holiday cottage on the Spanish coast—well, more power to them. But earning annual salaries of hundreds of thousands of euros, or more, bears no relationship to the actual service they perform (of course, that would be true for some other groups of mega-earners as well!). Another thing I find very strange is the status of the wives of these top players. It is hard to explain why these ladies should get such a bizarre amount of publicity.

And then, there are these ridiculously high transfer sums that are demanded, and paid, when a top player ‘transfer’ from one club to another. This week I realized that there is an important deadline for negotiating these transfers. In the past week it was decided who would play where in the coming season. Of course, I understand that soccer has become big business, and that the major clubs must be run like companies, with shareholders who want to see profits on their investments.

But a soccer club is, after all, a club. It is about a group of people who are devoted to a sport. A club has members and a sporting club has supporters, who will support their club whatever happens (at times with too much enthusiasm). You cannot be a supporter of several clubs at the same time! Supporters and club members want to see their club win, or at least rise in the league table. The word loyalty, more than anything else, sums up what being a club is all about.

Is it not strange, however, that all stakeholders are supposed to show utter loyalty to the their club—except the players? They just hop from one club to the next, if that is good for their career and their bank account! They are just as willing to help AC Milan win a championship as to contribute to a victory of FC Barcelona. After a ‘good’ transfer, their loyalty shifts instantly.  I continue to wonder how it is possible that a sport has deteriorated to the extent that for the key players loyalty to a club, to the members of a team, to a city or their country, has almost disappeared under the cloud of pure commercialism.

A church differs in many ways from a soccer club. Fortunately, a church is not primarily about human activity. But there are some similarities. A church also has members and supporters, and in most cases also a group of ‘players’ who earn a living with their work in the church. Occasionally some players opt for a transfer. It happens that a pastor—to use more straightforward language—opts for work in another faith community. There may be good reasons for doing so that are based on conviction and conscience.

Admittedly, there have been some moments in the past when I briefly considered that option. Not because such a ‘transfer’ would be financially advantageous. In fact, the salaries that are paid by the Adventist Church are not much lower (and at times even a bit higher) than what other denominations pay their personnel. But there can be issues in your own church that you find difficult to deal with, or things you totally disagree with. And at such moments the grass in another denominational pasture may seem considerably greener than that in your own ecclesial backyard. Yet, I have always been able to withstand that temptation. I continue to see more than enough solid reasons why I stay with the Adventist church as my spiritual ‘club’. And when I see the enormous loyalty of most members and ‘supporters’ of the church, and observe how they will do almost anything for their ‘club’, I feel inspired to nurture in myself that same intense loyalty towards the ‘club’ that has meant so much for me during my entire life.

 

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Does Cameron fulfill biblical prophecy?

 

I am a (critical) supporter of the European Union. I believe it would be good if the EU were further enlarged—in a responsible tempo—and that, eventually, the countries in the Balkan and Turkey become full members. Of course, ‘Brussels’ irritates me from time to time—and not only when I am stuck in the traffic in Brussels, when all 27 government leaders of EU with their motorcades want to leave the center of the Belgian capital at the same moment (as I experienced a few weeks ago). And yes, it seems to me that things in ‘Brussels’ could be quite a bit less bureaucratic. No ‘normal’ human being (except the French) can understand why the entire circus needs to move for a few days on a regular basis to Strasbourg. Last year I was given a tour through the European parliament and the enormous adjacent office building. That left me with the definite impression that this must indeed by a very costly business! But, nonetheless, I am convinced that the European Union (including the euro) has brought us many good things, and it is important that we do not allow this to be destroyed by temporary setbacks (such as the Greek crisis).

I suppose some of my readers do not share this view but rather wholeheartedly agree with the speech that David Cameron gave a few days ago. And I know that some Seventh-day Adventists reject all attempts to unify Europe, since the Bible indicates that this is a project that is doomed to fail. They point to the dream of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar as described and interpreted in Daniel chapter 2. De different metals of which the big statue in the king’s dream is composed point to a succession of world powers: Babylon (the head of gold), Medo-Persia (the breast and the arms of silvers), Greece (the belly and thighs of brass), and Rome (the iron legs). The statue has ten toes, of iron mixed with clay. According to the traditional interpretation, these toes symbolize the divided Europe, subsequent to Roman times, which will never again be a solid unity (iron and clay simply do not result in a strong substance!).  That division will last until a large stone, that continues to become larger, strikes at the feet of the statue and causes its total destruction. This symbolizes the divine intervention at the end of time, when the return of Christ inaugurates a kingdom of a totally different order. Ergo: all attempts to create unity in Europe are doomed to fail, and should therefore be vigorously condemned—like David Cameron did.

This conclusion, that we should not lend support to a certain project, because the return of Christ will put an end to it, seems rather questionable (to say the least). For this kind of reasoning would paralyze all our human efforts to be good stewards and to care for this earth as best as we can. But there is another important aspect.

A precise ‘historicist’ interpretation of biblical prophecy is surrounded by many problems. This is even true for a relatively ‘simple’ prophecy as that concerning the statue of Daniel 2. Very few Biblical exegetes would deny that Daniel, chapter 2, points to a series of political powers. But those who believe that the book of Daniel originated in the Seleucid period (second century BC), will make another list than those who continue to uphold a sixth century BC origin of this prophetic document. Seventh-day Adventists belong to the latter category, but they must be aware that this is nowadays a minority position.

Even when we stick to the traditional Adventist interpretation, we must face some significant questions when dealing with the identity of the ‘ten toes’. In the early days of Adventism men like Uriah Smith and Louis Conradi knew exactly what powers the prophet was alluding to: Huns, Ostragoths, Visigoths, Franks, Vandals, Suevi, Burgundians, Heruli, Anglo-Saxons, and Lombards. However, already towards the end of the nineteenth century Adventist preachers and scholars were no longer united on this issue. Moreover, a few hours with some history books will show us that there were far more than ten important tribes in the area that was once covered by Rome. In fact, the statue should have had at least some twenty toes! Of course, one can solve this problem by arguing that the number ‘ten’ ought to be seen as symbolic.

When six countries created the EU, some predicted that it would evolve in an alliance of ten nations that would, however, at some moment, be dissolved. When the EU grew (presently comprising 27 countries) this ceased to be a credible theory. Another issue that some felt needed to be looked at was the fact that today’s world is much larger that the area that was once covered by the ancient empires. Anyone who discusses world powers today will also have to mention the USA, China, etc. Therefore, some interpreters think that the ten toes refer to ten influential regions in the world, rather than to ten countries.

Whatever be the case, many agree: Prophecy tells us that the attempts to create greater political and economic unity in the world will ultimately fail. Therefore, the speech of the British prime ministers David Cameron of last week wis good news: He helps to make the prophecy come true. And the earlier the EU will be blown to pieces, the better it is. For that would be a clear end time signal that the coming of Christ is at hand.

Through the years I have become ever more hesitant in defending a purely historicist approach to apocalyptic prophecy as the only possible method. Prophetic writings, such as Daniel and the Revelation, are not primarily meant as history lessons. Yes, certainly, they have a message for us who live in the twenty-first century. But our task is not to use these writings to construct theories about the future of the euro and the future of ‘Europe’. The focus in Daniel 2 is not on the different metallic parts of the statue, but on the stone. The message is: God will intervene. The kingdom of God is not a fairy tale or some pie in the sky. It is coming! And the rest is relatively unimportant. The fact that I wholeheartedly believe in that stone is the reason why Adventism continues to be my spiritual home. (And in future elections I will again vote for a pro-Europe party!).

 

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Cold

 

It is cold in the Netherlands.  In many questions and remarks around me, I hear the word ‘cold’ or related terms.  ‘Is it cold outside?’ is an of-repeated question before people leave the cosines of their home. ‘How cold do you think it will be tomorrow?’ Or: ‘How cold does it feel?’  Now that we have had a few days of frost it would seem, from the way people talk, that the country has shifted a fair bit in the direction of Siberia. In some places the temperature dropped this week below minus 10 Celsius  (14 F). I have not yet been outside this morning, but the Internet tells me that it is currently about minus 5 C.  Is that really cold?

Most thimgs are relative.  How much should it freeze before it is ‘really’ cold? A few days ago I talked with my son in northern Sweden by Skype. I told him that we now at last have some serious wintery weather in Holland. He just laughed. ‘Yesterday night we had minus 32 C’, he said. ‘Now, that is cold!’

Temperatures vary. There is a huge difference between the present cold in the Netherlands and the heat wave in parts of Australia. And we are still far away from the absolute zero point. Scientists tell us, it cannot be colder than zero on the Kelvin scale. That is minus 273 degrees Celsius or minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit.  Fortunately, there are very few places where it will ever be below minus 50 C.  When you fly at about 11.000 feet the outside temperature may be as low as minus 50, but even though the cold air is very close, it is, at the same time, far away.

Cold weather can be annoying. But most of us (in the ‘first’ world, at least) are able to buy the clothes that can keep us warm, and most modern homes have central heating. My son in Sweden can switch on the electric heater in his car without leaving his home, and as a result the inside of the car is pleasantly warm when he is ready to get going.

In the not too distant past, however, things were quire different. Some fifty years ago most homes in the Netherlands only had a stove in the living room. The bedrooms would at times be so cold that your breath would freeze when your head stuck out from under the blankets. A few people would have some electric heaters that would help deter the frost in their bedroom and in the kitchen, but after a serious spell of cold weather much of the house could turn into an ice cellar.

As a child and in my early teens I  lived in a windmill that was used in the sixteenth century for pumping water out of the Schermer lake (about so km’s North of Amsterdam). It was not very comfortable when it was real winter. The nightly excursions to the ‘out-house’ above a narrow canal, some 20 meters away from the mill, was quite an undertaking you wanted to postpone as long as possible, even in summer time—let alone when the temperatures had dropped to below zero. For a number of years I slept in a ‘room’ in the part of the mill that was right above the water, or above the ice! The floor of the ‘room’ consisted of planks without any isolation. Often the wind would howl around the mill and was able to blow through the numerous cracks in the walls. I can remember it very clearly: It was really cold!

But I should not feel too sorry about myself or my family. For it is really cold when you live on the streets, and have to face the winter without finding any shelter—as is the fate of many men and women in many big cities throughout the world. It is really cold when you have no job and you are out of money, and your gas is cut off because you were unable to pay your last bill. And it is really cold when you are a Syrian refugee in a camp in Jordan or Turkey, and must live in a tent without any heating, while it is snowing outside.

For us, a few cold weeks may mean some extra heating expenses, a few weeks without work, or a bent car fender after hitting a pole. However, for many people elsewhere it can be a matter of life or death. There is ample reason to be very thankful when you belong to the ‘rich’ part of the world’s population. Maybe the present spell of cold weather should inspire us to send some money to an organization that assists people who are ‘in the cold’!

[P.S. I am going to send some money to the Red Cross for help to Syrian refugees. What about you?]

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‘Language games’

 

Some time ago I started reading a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein ((Ray Monk: Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius). After some 200 pages I laid it aside and it was not until last week that I picked it up again. But now the book has me in its grip and I am sure to finish it.  I must admit that there are, however, some portions that are a bit beyond me. When Monk tries to explain what this famous philosopher exactly meant in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) I am still not sure that I understand everything. The first chapter of Wittgenstein’s book already presents quite a challenge. It deals with the proposition: “The world is all that is the case.”  This is followed by his second proposition: “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” What can he possibly mean by that? But perhaps I should not worry all that much about my lack of comprehension. The great English contemporary philosopher Bertrand Russell admitted that he had not understood a single word of what his friend Ludwig had written in his (thin) book. [But even though I do not always understand the drift of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, his life story remains extremely fascinating.)

Later in life (and I will no doubt read about that in great detail later in this biography) Wittgenstein focused, in particular, on the philosophy of language. He is well known for his suggestion that language is based on an agreement between people who belong to one and the same group. Such groups have agreed that the words they use have a certain meaning. Wittgenstein rejects the idea that words refer to some reality that is irrefutable. It refers to what the members of a group consider to be the truth. He, therefore, speaks of a ‘language game’ that each group plays.

In many ways his philosophical ideas about language are important building blocks for the postmodern view that there is no absolute Truth and no absolute meanings. Every individual has his/her ‘truth’ and all interpretations are equally valid. Apart from the fact that I fail to understand some aspects of this subject (since I have only limited expertise in the domain of philosophy), it would be impossible to deal with this at some length in a short blog. But two things seem of special importance to me.

It is a fact that many (and I include myself most definitely) often use words and arguments that a lot of people around us do not understand. Research has shown that a major percentage of the viewers of the daily TV-news program do not understand what is being reported, especially when it concerns items about the economy.  My wife often tells me to avoid ‘difficult’ words in what I write and in my sermons. The content of what I try to convey is certainly not as convoluted as the content of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but she may have a point.

The second thing to be noted is that Christians are often involved in language games. They use a very special kind of language. I do not mean that they are only involved in a ‘game’ and that their words are not linked to any ‘Reality’. But their words can often only be understood by people who belong to the same group and who have learned and have agreed to use these words in a particular way. People who are outside of this group, or young people at the margins of the group, find it difficult to know what it is all about.

All religious communities are, to some degree at least, guilty of using a jargon that is not understood by others. An extreme example is provided by a group whose books can still be found in a number of very conservative bookshops in the Dutch Bible Belt. A book written in the seventeenth century by a reverend Smytegeld, containing 153 sermons about the crooked reed (Matt. 12: 20, 21), is still available but will leave most other Christian wonder what the reverend wants to say!

Seventh-day Adventists, however, also are a good example of a group that has developed its own jargon. Many of them sill know exactly what is meant by ‘Adventist’ terms that have been sanctified by history and frequent use. But an ever growing segment of the church experiences this as a ‘language game’ of which they do no longer know the rules. This clearly poses an enormous communication problem. For, if you have massage that you want to spread, you must communicate that message in a language that your target audience can understand. If we fail in this respect, we will be like Wittgenstein, whose message was not understood even by his friends who tried very hard to grasp what he meant to say. It is a lesson that I am still trying to learn.

 

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Dementia

 

Years ago I worked in a church institution with a number of people on my staff. One of the children of one of the employees decided to cohabit. At the time that was much less common than it is today, and in Adventist circles in particular, it caused many eyebrows to be raised. One of his colleagues was very clear: Such a thing could not be condoned! But what happened? A little later the daughter of this colleague decided to move in with her friend. When I asked him how he felt about this, he admitted that he was not really happy with it, but that he understood why his daughter had made this decision. In this case there were some valid reasons, why his daughter and her friend would share a house (and a bed) . . .

I remembered this incident when last week I was reading a book on dementia ((John Swinton: Dementia: Living in the Memories of God. Eerdmans, 2012). The book had been for a few months already on my pile of ‘books to read’. Why had I ordered it from Amazon? I had seen the title in the recent catalogue of Eerdmans Publishers and the description intrigued me. Dementia—sooner or later in life we will be confronted with this issue and most of us ask ourselves, as we become older, whether that might eventually be our personal fate. And then one asks oneself: What in fact is dementia? It is really strange that something ,that is so ubiquitous, is nonetheless so unknown.

In his book Swinton pleads for a new approach towards the treatment of persons with dementia. He refuses to call them ‘patients’. He says: The moment you label this people as ‘patients’, they become ‘cases’, and they cease to be ‘persons’ with whom you want to maintain a meaningful relationship. Swinton does not want to define dementia primarily in terms of ‘defects’ and of what is lost, but rather in terms of what still remains.

Swinton refers to the standpoints of others. The well-known, radical (non-Christian) ethicist Peter Singer is of the opinion that the life of persons with serious dementia no longer has any value. It is morally permissible, maybe even desirable, to end their life. But he felt it impossible to remain consistent in his views when his own mother became a victim of dementia. When that happened, he wanted the best possible care for her. In an interview he stated that he would never be able to end the life of his mother.  Why not? the interviewer asked, while pointing out that this was a very inconsistent attitude. Singer’s only answer was: ‘She is my mother.’ This woman was no an abstract ‘case’ but a person of flesh and blood.

The view of my esteemed co-worker with regard to the cohabiting of an unmarried couple changed drastically when it concerned his daughter. The former rational arguments lost most of their force, and he could not longer operate with a detached scheme of 100 percent wrong or 100 percent good. Likewise, a totally new situation arose for Peter Singer when, according to his rational theories, his own mother became a rather likely candidate for euthanasia. At that moment other considerations took over.

Quite often the arguments for various ethical standpoints are in themselves correct. Often very convincing texts from Scripture can be cited. But things change when we are dealing with human beings who are close to us, whom we love and mean far more for us than some hypothetical ‘case’. But, are we allowed to think like this in the context of the church? Should we not expect that the standpoints of the church (which are supposedly biblical positions) are always applied, since they are principles. And are we not often told never to compromise our principles?

Or should we leave some space for other considerations? Should a church that claims to give priority to being ‘followers of Christ’, not put the care and love for a human being above the application of laws and rules?

Surely, rules and laws cannot be simply ignored. After all, Christ himself stated clearly that every little detail of what God did reveal about his will has remained valid. But the life and ministry of our Lord also demonstrated that the happiness and well-being of human beings should always have priority. And, in particular, the well-being of those whom we love and who have committed to our care.

 

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