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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[Sunday, February 10] Today was an important day for the Adventist Church in Belgium. For some time the church was in the process of looking for a new president. I was appointed as president in September 2011, but from day one it was clear that I would only be a kind of ‘interim-pope’ (excuses for the word!). I promised to do the job for about a year, but not much longer. And thus, some months ago I began reminding my fellow church leaders that they had to become more serious about finding a permanent solution. As a result, a process was started that was completed today with the election of pastor Jeroen Tuinstra (from the Netherlands) as the new leader.

Today delegates from all Adventist churches in Belgium and Luxemburg assembled to vote about a proposal of the federation committee. I image that some may have thought that the meeting was, in fact, a bit of an anticlimax. After all, the vote was just about one name: for or against. It was to be expected that there would be a significant majority in favor of the proposal, since no alternative was offered. Maybe some felt, however, that it resembled an election in a communist country, where the outcome of a vote is without any surprise. Is it reasonable to call people from all over the country on a cold February Sunday morning to Woluwe (near Brussels) to put a circle around ‘oui’ or ‘non’ on their ballot ticket?

I will be the last one to suggest that the election system of the Adventist Church is perfect. But there is no doubt that this more or less symbolic act by the representatives of the local churches, was preceded by a very serious and careful process. There was an intensive search for possible candidates. Several of them were interviewed at length by a committee that is responsible for “human resources”. Eventually, this resulted in the proposal that was put to the delegates today, in conformity with Belgian law. I did not get involved in the details, for I felt it was not in good taste for me to say too much about the person who was to succeed me.

During the next few weeks I will transfer my tasks to Jeroen Tuinstra. Officially, he starts per 1 April. Together with the secretary and the treasurer of the federation we have set aside a number of days in the coming weeks to talk at length about many things that have happened in the past 18 months, but also about the things that we have not been able to give due attention. I will tell him about things that, I believe, went well, but also about the things that did not go so well. I will try to give an honest picture of the opportunities and the challenges, but also of the rather awkward problems that he will find on his plate.

It has been a fascinating period for me—an unexpected bonus at the end of my church career. I look back on the past period with a lot of satisfaction, but it is also true that I look forward to getting a bit of rest. I may have brought a degree of experience with me that the church in the BLF has been able to profit from. My successor will yet have to gain most of his experience.  But that may be an advantage rather than a disadvantage. By electing Jeroen Tuinstra, the church in Belgium and Luxemburg has opted for the future, for the young people in the church, for a fresh and contemporary approach. I congratulate him with the challenging task that is ahead of him. But I also congratulate the church in the Belgian-Luxembourg Federation with the fact that they have not opted for routine and tradition, but for vision, openness and renewal! May God bless this choice! And, I trust that Jeroen will receive the same kind of warm reception that I have experienced in the period of my interim-presidency!


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