Diversity

 

[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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Vacancy

 

[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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Formality?

 

[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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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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