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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Crisis

Since many decades the Netherlands has a coalition government. As a result radical shifts in political direction, following an election, are rare—either towards the left or towards the right. Several parties must work together and must agree to numerous compromises when forming a coalition agreement, and thus the course remains mostly in the middle.

Presently the country is ruled by a coalition of a liberal and a socialist party, in which both liberal traits and some socialist hobbyhorses can be recognized. But this time the situation is unusual, for no religious party is involved. And this will not remain unnoticed.

As the coalition agreement was being constructed it was soon quite clear that every form of reticence with regard to permitting Sunday shopping would be something of the past. If a local city government decides that all shops can be open on Sundays, that is fine. If some local councils in the Dutch Bible Belt believe that the Day of the Lord must be kept sacred and all shopping must be banned on that day, they have the privilege to decide accordingly.

As the weeks go by, we also hear of other plans. The ancient law that forbids blasphemy will soon be cancelled. Admittedly, it was rarely invoked, but part of Christian Holland is far from happy with this plan. The pretext is freedom of opinion and freedom of expression! But does blasphemy not primarily have to do with civilization?

There is another sensitive point. Any prospective civil servant involved with performing marriages must henceforth be prepared to also perform same-sex marriages. New civil servants will no longer have the privilege of excusing themselves from this task, on the basis of conscientious objections. Even if one might not be opposed to the right of same-sex couples to get married, one might nonetheless accept that civil servants may not want to be involved with such ceremonies. But in the future they will not have that privilege. The law of the land allows same-sex marriage and all civil servants are supposed to administer the law!

The coalition partners have also agreed that the government may find another ten million euros if the subsidy will be discontinued that pays for the free transport of certain categories of pupils to religion-based schools. And they have found they can further economize by making some additional cuts in the funding of certain radio and television organizations. In addition to earlier announced cuts that amount to 100 million euros, it is now also proposed to do away with all subsidized broadcasting by religious organizations—Christian and non-Christian.

This is what was announced within just a few weeks. Who knows what plans will yet be unveiled? Is this just a series of coincidences, or are these systematic signals that religion is to be pushed from public life, so that it will stay ‘behind the front door of the home’? Atheists and agnostics who plead for a strict separation between church and state are mostly satisfied with these and similar measures. And many others also agree. For why would the government get involved with religious matters, let alone pay for them?

I would fully agree that there are things that must remain totally outside of the domain of the state. Internal religious affairs may not depend on the attitude of the authorities. But, religion is an important aspect of the daily life of millions of citizens and the government has the task to ensure that there are adequate facilities to ensure that all important aspects of life can flourish. Just as it desirable that the state ensures a good climate for a healthy cultural life, and provides adequate facilities for sports (even though not everyone plays soccer or will want a daily work-out). It must be feared, however, that the present coalition will continue to remove all manifestations of faith from ‘the public square’ (unless the Senate will decide to resist some of these measures).

Traditionally, the Netherlands was a conservative Calvinistic country. Over time it has turned into one of the most secularized nations of Europe. Is that to be regretted? In some ways we may actually rejoice that the country has become a more pleasant and tolerant place to live in, where the people have more space than before. God is, however, not only gradually disappearing from the Netherlands by an ongoing process of secularization—but this is now a process that is actively promoted by the authorities. And that may be a much more serious matter than the effects of the current economic crisis that may make us lose a few percent of our purchasing power.

 

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Halfway

 

Some two and a half years have passed since the quinquennial World Congress of the Adventist Church in Atlanta (USA). So, we are at the halfway point in this five-year period between ‘general conferences’.  It is a good moment to try to see where we are. The choice of Wilson as the church’s president was a clear signal that the majority of the delegates opted for another (more conservative) course.  Has that indeed happened? And if so, is this going to be a lasting development?

I do not pretend that I can answer these questions in any definitive way. But, admittedly, they are very much on my mind. For some time the Adventist Church has been moving in the direction of an ever more hierarchical system, with a lot of power in the hands of top leadership.  General Conference presidents have placed an increasingly strong mark on the program of the church. This was certainly the case in the period of Robert Folkenberg, the creative super-manager, who had more ideas per day than his staff could handle in a year. This tendency was less visible in his successor, Jan Paulsen, even though he also got into the habit of launching ‘presidential initiatives’.  But since 2010 the projects which Wilson has promoted seem to have eclipsed everything else that the church is planning to do.

What were/are the most important topics of which we have constantly heard since 2010?  Let me list some of the main emphases:

  1. Revival and Reformation
  2. Loyalty to the Bible, according to traditional principles of interpretation
  3. A greater focus on the work of Ellen White
  4. Global distribution of ‘The Great Controversy’
  5. A six-day literal (and recent) creation
  6. The status of women in the church (ordination)
  7. Warning against non-SDA influences
  8. Proactive measures against dangerous forms of spirituality
  9. Care for the unity (uniformity?) of the church
  10. ‘Reaching’ the big cities, starting with New York
  11. A new emphasis on the ‘health message’

So, what has happened in these various domains? It appears that these themes have not really caught on everywhere. The slogan of ‘revival and reformation’ seems to have receded somewhat into the background. The massive distribution of ‘The Great Controversy’ has not quite gone according to the original plans. In many countries the project has not been given high priority. And in most places where the project has been given high visibility an abbreviated version of the book has been used. With regard to the issue of women’s ordination, the president has met more resistance than he probably expected. Whether the large-scale evangelism in New York and other megacities will be successful remains to be seen. Many are skeptical. The results of other plans are more difficult to measure and it will be a while before we will be able to determine whether they have brought major, lasting changes. Will more church members now regularly read their Bible? Will the average local church pay more attention to Ellen G. White than before? Will we see new, innovative methods to link the themes of faith and health in a relevant way?

To chart how faith communities develop requires some distance in time. Only some fifteen or twenty years from now will we, most likely, be sure whether the Wilson initiatives were truly ‘successful’.  While the church’s media may pay a lot of attention to certain projects and themes over a stretch of time, we must recognize that many other processes determine local church life, and not everything that comes from ‘above’ does in fact ‘land’ in the local church or even in the local conference.  Also, the influence of top leadership of the church must not be overstated. Their influence can wane quite quickly. Men like Robert Pearson and Robert Folkenberg have become mere footnotes in the annals of Adventist history.

Whether the church in general will move towards to ‘left’ or towards the ‘right’ is not just determined by initiatives that come from the head office. All kinds of other developments in society and in the way people think, also play a role. We must fear that, just as in many other denominations and as in society at large, polarization will further increase. Yet, it can also not be denied that in our western, postmodern world hierarchical systems meet with more and more resistance and are experienced as mostly irrelevant. Unfortunately, many Adventist leaders seem unaware of this.

No one can predict how the church will exactly develop in this phase of its history and whether the current climate will continue after 2015. Time will tell what initiatives have been a blessing to the church and what would better have been left untried. But in the midst of all doubts and worries, I continue to trust the role of the Spirit.  In spite of all human maneuvers He will ultimately guide the ship of the church towards its final destiny.

 

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