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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Bartlett, Ruguri, etc.

 

The new year has started well for me. After a pleasant Christmas and a few relaxing days around New Year’s Eve en New Year’s Day, with a few good books and a visit to the museum for Dutch literature in the Hague (where I had never been before), I am ready to face the future again.

In the last few days I received quite a few reactions to an article that appeared in the December issue of Ministry Magazine. In this article I made a plea for having a more relaxed attitude towards doctrinal developments than we currently tend to see in the Adventist Church. Many expressed their heartfelt agreement. One of the bloggers in Adventist Today wrote that, if it were within his power, he would require all Adventist church administrators to put this article on the door of their fridge and read it daily.

At the beginning of a new year I hope that many, in the Adventist Church and elsewhere, will have the courage to voice their opinions—even if that would cause resistance in certain quarters. If I have any plans for the new year, it is this: To address things that I feel need attention and must change. I see many things in my church that fall in this category. These are things that must be part of a continuous dialogue. Let me just mention two examples of recent events that ought to occupy us.

Firstly, there is the terrible shoot-out on December 14 in a school in Newton, a small town in the state of Connecticut (USA), which left 27 (mostly very young) people dead. Inevitably this fuels the debate in American society about the right to possess and use arms. It is good to see that many Americans realize that there should be fewer weapons among the citizens. But not all agree. The powerful NRA-lobby advanced the crazy idea to have armed guards in every school. The motto is that the only answer to a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun!

In the earlier phase of its existence the Adventist Church was vehemently opposed to the use of arms.  Adventists were noncombatants. The commandment “Thou shall not kill” was very broadly applied. However, in many countries this principle has been set aside. Whereas in the past American Adventists did all they could to avoid the bearing of arms, today many consider it an honor to fight for their country (preferably in far-away countries!). Moreover, many Adventists today defend the possession of firearms and are keen to receive training in their use. After the tragedy in Newton, Spectrum published an article about the position of Roscoe Bartlett regarding the right to have a gun. Until a few days ago he was a member of Congress for the Republicans. Of all Adventists to serve in Congress he was the longest-running member (1993-January 2013). Bartlett studied at what is now called Washington Adventist University. He is not only a very wealthy man but also is a member of the Adventist Church. That latter fact has not prevented him from voting against every proposal to limit the distribution of firearms. He called such initiatives ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘illogical’. It makes me sad when I read something like this. The more so, since he says what many of my American fellow-believers also think.

Then there is the incident that concerns pastor Blasius Ruguri, the president of the Adventist Church of the East-Central African Division.  According to press reports he has stated that he fully agrees with a proposal that have been submitted to the Ugandan parliament about punishments for homosexuals. The death penalty should be a possibility for practicing homos.  When considerable commotion resulted, Ruguri stated, that he never actually said what he was supposed to have said. He had only referred to the official view of the Adventist Church and had then been quoted out of context. It must be feared that, at the very least, Ruguri made some very awkward remarks and may need some media training. But, unfortunately, it is a sad fact that many of our African fellow-believers would fully agree with the plans that are discussed in the parliament of Uganda. This became quite clear to me when a few years ago I spent a month in Uganda at the Adventist University in that country. And this state of affairs continues to weigh heavily on my heart.

These are just two examples. There are plenty of other important issues. So, let us, in this new year, not be afraid to call a spade a spade, and to raise our voices when we see things that we cannot in good conscience accept and that need to be addressed. I, for one, will try to do so in my humble way via this blog-channel.

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Blessings and opportunities

 

I have always liked Professor Anne van der Meiden and have admired him because of his many qualities. He grew up in the conservative section of the Dutch Reformed Church, but soon left this type of Christianity behind. He became a well-known liberal Reformed pastor, who led out in the wedding services of two of the Dutch princes. He wrote books on theology, but also about communication and propaganda—his second area of academic expertise. In addition, he wrote a few novels and translated the Bible in the ‘language’ of Twente (an area in the eastern part of the Netherlands). Recently this 83-year old emeritus professor/preacher published a new book. It contains 366 devotional messages, one for each day of the year.

Perhaps it is because I always like to read Anne van der Meiden’s books, that I bought his newest book today. But another reason may be my interest in the genre of biblical devotional books. I just wrote one myself. And, of course, this gives rise to some curiosity. How do other authors create their devotional books? And how might I approach the writing of another such book? [Yes, I am toying with the idea of starting another such project.]

In the devotional book that was just published the focus of the first message (January 1) is on the theme of man as the bearer of God’s image. What does this mean? Truly an important question as we begin a new year. But van der Meiden has a different approach, which is much more philosophical. I think I will read his book with much pleasure. In any case, I will not read my own devotional on a daily basis, for I am already thoroughly acquainted with its content. The first sentence in van der Meiden’s message of January 1 is already very intriguing. I wished I had written these words! He pictures the end of the year and the start of a new year as follows: Yesterday: counting your blessings. Today: counting your opportunities!

This makes sense to me. When I look back on 2012, there are many blessings to count. I continue to be in reasonable health and the same is true for my wife. (The immobility that resulted from a recent knee surgery is now largely behind her.) And it is also true for our son and his family and for our daughter. No one in our immediate family or from among our close friends had been taken from us. We have been able to enjoy many good things. May wife and I have made some major trips in 2012, and we have been able to use our creativity, in painting and writing respectively. I spent a major part of my time in 2012 in Belgium or devoted time to ‘Belgian affairs’ when at home. It has given me a lot of satisfaction. Yes, there are indeed many blessings to count.

But van der Meiden is right. It is important that we also see our opportunities in 2013. It is very easy to be worried. We do not know whether life as it is will continue. Old age may get us in its grip through various physical challenges. Or, will we also begin to feel the results of the economic crisis? I may have to get used to the fact that invitations to be involved in various church events around Europe will diminish. Very likely, I will be more and more in the margins of church life. It is impossible to predict what will happen in 2013.  But there will be opportunities. Opportunities to be meaningful to others around us. Opportunities to find more inner fulfillment. Possibly also opportunities to acquire more knowledge and to have fresh experiences. Perhaps also the opportunity to write new books or—for my wife—to create beatiful things.

Some decades ago the Dutch Adventist Church used a hymnal that had a hymn about ‘taking hold of the opportunities that God gives’. When, in the beginning of the 1980’s, I was heavily involved in the revision of this hymnal, I was co-responsible for the decision to retain this hymn in our new hymnal, albeit with a much revised text. For it still very pointedly  encourages us to reach out for all God-given opportunities. Also in 2013.

 

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Laotian wedding

[Friday, December 21]  Just moving in with your partner and starting a family is undoubtedly a lot simpler than a Laotian wedding, as we experienced it this week. The festivities began with a preliminary program on Wednesday—a visit to the national museum that gave us a survey of the political history of the country, and a fishing competition in the fish ponds of the father of the bride, followed by a fish barbecue.

The actual wedding ceremonies started on Thursday morning, when the wedding party visited a Buddhist temple.  The family of the bride has a close connection with this particular temple, as her grandparents long ago donated the land on which the temple is built.

The Christian wedding service at which I officated was held this morning in a restaurant in Vientiane, with a lunch afterwards for all guests.  Tomorrow a Laotian ritual—the Bacci ceremony—will take place, which, supposedly is more a matter of folklore than of serious religion. And then, tomorrow night, a wedding feast will be held in the garden of the new home of the newly-weds where several hundred, or even a thousand, guests are expected. Finally, on Sunday morning Aafje and I will fly back, via Singapore to Amsterdam.

For western people this is all rather exuberant and exotic. And also rather tiring, in view of the logistic challenges of constantly moving a sizable group from the hotels in the city center to the ‘family estate’ some 15 kilometers away, where the city ends and the rice fields introduce you to a different kind of Laos.  But it is certainly quite fascinating. It reminds us how important it is in most cultures to clearly mark the transition from one phase of life to the next. And, after all, it is quite a decision to live together for the rest of one’s life.

It makes us think of our own wedding day, 22 December, now 48 years ago in the Hague. As a penniless student (I) and an office worker (my wife), without well-do-do parents, our wedding was extremely sober. As I remember, our wedding budget was the equivalent of just a few hundred dollars. A three-day honeymoon in Amsterdam was the limit of our financial possibilities. But our decision to join our lives was no less important. And even after 48 years we hope that many good years will yet follow.  The fact that two years from now the mayor of Zeewolde will visit us to congratulate us with our golden wedding anniversary is not our most important thought. But when I read in our local paper that the mayor has been calling again on a ‘golden’ couple, I cannot help but thinking that before long he will ring our door bell.

So, on Sunday morning we hope to start our journey home. If our flights are not delayed we can be home in time for Christmas. At home the Christmas tree is waiting for us, for we docorated it just before we left. It will be good to celebrate Christmas in the Netherlands and to enjoy the atmosphere of the season. The plastic Christmas tree in the hotel lobby, with the rather ugly ornaments and a few scattered pine cones, fails to create a true sense of Christmas. And in a Buddhist country like Laos there is virtually nothing that reminds the visitor of the Christmas child. In spite of all commercialism back home, we will still be reminded of the true meaning of Christmas. I do not want to miss it.

 

 

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Laos

[Saturday afternoon 15 December] There are still quite a few cities and countries in this world that I would like to visit.  Indonesia and Singapore are certainly on that list.  This week the small screen on the back of the seat in front of me told me that I was less than 100 kilometers away from Indonesia. And I did visit Singapore for some twelve hours or so. It is a shame that it was so short and that I saw nothing of it.  Early Friday morning (local time) I saw the lights of the airport flashing by as we landed in Singapore. We then enjoyed for a few moments the luxury of terminal 2 of Changi Airport, but without seeing even a little bit of sky. The room in the transit hotel at the airport where we stayed during our stop was both sound- and lightproof. Later in the afternoon we could see planes arriving and departing, while we were in one of the airport eating places. But when we left on the Airbus 320 of Lao Airlines with destination Vientiane it was already pitch dark.  So much for a visit to Singapore.

Singapore was not our destination. My wife Aafje and I have been invited for a wedding in the capital of Laos. It is my task to officiate at a wedding service later in the coming week. Embedded in many Buddhist traditions, there will be a Christian service and that is where I have a role. The groom is the youngest son of friends from Utrecht (Netherlands), while the bride is from Laos. They met in Laos where the groom is working and living since quite some time. I had the privilege of performing the marriage of his parents, and that of his older brother and his Chinese-Malaysian wife. So, in fact, you could say, I am the family pastor.

Presently we are overcoming our jetlag in Vientiane, the capital city of the Democratic People’s Republic of Laos. We are staying in a friendly hotel at a few hundred meters from the Mekong River. From our fourth floor room we are looking down at this famous stream with Thailand at the other side of the water.  Friends from the Netherlands are staying in the same hotel. This morning we joined in renting a tuktuk to have a short look at the city. Now I am writing while seated in the roofed-over terrace area of the hotel, with a Coca-Cola in my hand, and enjoying the 25-plus Celsius temperature. Across the street is a large Buddhist temple complex which we will no doubt inspect sooner rather than later. Our jetlag and the realization that today is the seventh day, keep our program for today simple. The Internet tells me that there is a Seventh-day Adventist church in town, but since our proficiency in the Laotian language is nil, we decide to skip worship today.

I do not know how my local ‘brethren’ would react if they knew that a European Adventist pastor happens to be in town to officiate at a wedding ceremony. I am, however, not going against the official rules of my church. The groom has an Adventist background, but is not a baptized member of the church. The bride has a Buddhist background. Having lived in France for a number of years she is, however, aware of the basics of Christianity. I have always been convinced that I should be ready to cooperate when a couple approaches me because they want God’s blessing on their marriage.  Such a wish is always my point of departure. Any church rules will always take second place to this.  No doubt I will be confronted during the three days of festivities, later in the week, by traditions that do not agree with my personal views. But I hope that my role may contribute to the fact that the God whom I know may be presented well during these ceremonies.

 

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