Back and forth

 

[Wednesday morning, 7.00 hrs.] Yesterday I wanted to take the fast train to Brussels and to return again by train today. But precisely when I planned to leave the car at home, the Belgian Railways decided to go on strike. Looking though the window of room 226 in the Ibis-hotel, where I have just spent the night, I see one of the entrances of the Brussels South Station. It is uncannily quiet. But I realize there are lots of people that are more much inconvenienced by this strike than I am. I am going to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and then I will get in my Citroen Berlingo (with Belgian license plates!) to drive the route that I can now almost dream—223 kilometers: Brussels-Antwerp-Breda-Utrecht-Zeewolde. From the moment I leave home, I invariably look forward to the coffee stop, just 10 kilometers into Belgium, and on the return trip the road restaurant at the Belgian-Dutch border is the fixed place to make a stop. So, that’s where I will have my coffee break later this morning.

This driving back and forward to Brussels is not the most pleasant aspect of my Belgian assignment. In the past 12 months I have made the return trip from Zeewolde to Brussels some 80 times. This past week will increase the average number of trips per week somewhat. Last Thursday I left for Verviers (about 50 kilometers South of Maastricht), to visit a retired (but still active) pastor. The next day I drove via Luxembourg to the small German town of Konz on the Saar river, where the pastor lives who not only cares for the German Adventist congregation in the German city of Trier, but who also pastors the two churches in the country of Luxembourg. I then spent the Saturday in Namur, where the local church had organized a special ‘green’ church service, with a special ‘green’ program in the afternoon. And then, on Sunday, I went to the Dutch speaking town of Hasselt to give a presentation. Church members and friends of the church met in a large meeting room in the local Holyday Inn. Twice a year a speaker is invited for such a venue to speak on a religious or social issue. My theme was postmodernism. (The words has spread that I regularly give presentations on this topic, so I keep getting requests to speak on that theme. Anyway, the Hassel meeting was a very pleasant experience.)

I was home again around nine o’clock Sunday evening. But yesterday morning (Tuesday) I was back on the road. I tried to stay ahead of the heavy traffic by leaving home at six. It was OK until Antwerp, but then things slowed down and it was already around ten o’clock when I entered the Rue Ernest Allard in Brussels, where the church office is located. As I entered the street I looked at the name plate for the umpteenth time and once again I decided it was high time I would find out who this mr. Ernest Allard actually was. [Well this morning I consulted Wikipedia and this is what it told me: Ernest Allard (1849-1898) was a Belgian architect. He was the founder of a professional journal for architects. He worked for renewal and used a mix of different styles. And, he was also a prominent Belgian Freemason.] Since the meeting last night went on until 20.00 hrs, I stayed the night in Brussels. After a full day of conversations and meetings I simply missed the energy to begin a 223-kilometer drive.

So, in an hour or so I will leave for home. Today and tomorrow I will be busy with a number of things at home. In Friday I will drive to Brugge (West-Flanders) for a few visits. I will stay the night in that lovely city, probably in the local Ibis (reasonable comfort at a reasonable price). Saturday afternoon I am scheduled to introduce the new Rumanian pastor to the Rumanian Adventist church in Brussels, and in the morning to the Rumanian Adventist church in Braine l’Alleud, just South of Brussels.

Not every week, however, is quite is hectic. And it will not continue indefinitely, for I hope to be able to hand over this assignment to someone else in the early spring. Serious efforts are now under way to find a regular president for the Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxembourg, so that my interim-services will no longer be needed.

Regrettably, there are things I would love to do but that will have to wait because of a serious lack of time. The stack of new, unread, books besides the couch in our living room, keeps growing. It took me as much as two weeks to read the new biography of Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, a famous socialist leader in Holland of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The newest book by historian Geert Mak, about the United States, is now top of the list. I hope to get going next Sunday or so.

So, it is, I suppose, clear that my life is rather busy. But it is a privilege to be able to continue doing lots of things. However, a letter from our family doctor told me that as a ‘senior person’ I am entitled to a free injection to protect me against the seasonal flue. It reminded me tactfully that I am part of the vulnerable, elderly segment of Dutch society!

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Royalties

 

A man will never know what it means for a woman to give birth to a child.  A person who has never hiked at a greater height than on the hills in the Netherlands (the highest is just over over 300 meters), cannot possibly feel what one experiences on the top of Mount Everest. And a Dutchman whose knowledge of other cultures is limited to the traditional dress of the women in some old fishing villages in Holland, will continue to wonder what could possibly motivate someone to trek through India or Vietnam.

Likewise, a person who has not yet written a book, cannot possibly imagine how it feels to hold the first copy of a new publication that one has written in his/her hands. From time to time I have tasted this sublime experience and last week was an other such occasion. My newest book—this time a ‘devotional’ with 366 page-length meditations (in the Dutch language)—one for each day of the year—was delivered by the printer at the head office of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. When I received an e-mail with that news, I jumped in my car for the half hour ride to the office, in order to see to book, and to actually feel it.  At this moment a copy lies next to me on the couch. It will, no doubt, be there for a few weeks, so that I will have the delight to, once in a while, pick it up and read a paragraph or two.

This quite naturally raises the question in my mind (and in that of some others) what my next book will be. To be honest, I am not yet sure. For some time I will still be quite busy with my assignment in Belgium. But I hope and pray that I may remain healthy enough for quite some time to remain active as a writer. Should I maybe this time write another book in English? I have given some thought to working on a devotional book for the English-language market in the SDA Church. But I have to face the reality that the writing of ‘devotionals’ for that market is a privilege for some prominent Adventist (American) authors and that it is not very likely that I will be able to join that select little group. But, ‘no worries’, there are plenty of other projects that are already vaguely taking shape in my mind.

From time to time some colleagues or other church members make allusions, obtuse or otherwise, to the undoubtedly generous amounts of royalties that I get from my books and articles. Well, let me reveal the truth. One does not write articles and books for Adventist publishers if one aspires to become rich. Looking back at the last ten or twenty years, there probably were a few years in which I received a few thousand dollars in royalties, but I guess there were as many years when total royalty income did not go beyond a thousand bucks.

Twice I have written a quarterly for the weekly Bible study in the worldwide Adventist Church. The effort is rewarded with a one-off payment of a few thousand dollars. A few years ago I was happily surprised when I received a check of similar size from an Adventist publisher in South America. One of my books had been translated into Portuguese and had been printed in an edition of some 400.000 copies—if I remember correctly. Sometimes, an article will bring the author a few hundred dollars. Yesterday I received a mail message from Ministry magazine, informing me that my article Creating a climate for the discovery of truth: A perspective on doctrinal development will shortly be published and will earn me a payment of 250 dollar. I will not have much difficulty in spending that with Amazon.com.

These, however, are the exceptions rather than the rule. I have never expected normal royalties for anything that I have written for the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. Many Adventist journals in Europe and elsewhere ‘borrow’ freely, often without even asking. And when they do ask, if there is a payment it is rather symbolical. From time to time I do some Googling and discover that somewhere in the world some publication that I wrote has been translated and published. Usually the translator benefits considerably more than the original author!

But I have no reason to complaint (although I do not discourage publishers from sending me checks). No one forces me to write. I just love to do it. And my (quite frequent) extra reward comes when someone tells me or writes me that he/she has enjoyed, or even benefitted from, something I wrote. In the end, that is what counts. And, certainly, what also counts is this fabulous feeling when, at last, you hold the fruit of your labor in printed form in your hands.  That feeling is more than money can buy.

 

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Traditions

 

Like so many words, the word ‘tradition’ has its roots in Latin. I have retained enough of my knowledge of Latin to remember that it goes back to the Latin verb tradere, which means: to deliver, to pass on. So, a tradition is about passing things on from one period to the next, from one generation to the following. In itself it is a rather neutral word.

For many Protestant theologians, however, there is (or in any case, was) a rather dubious aspect. For the term ‘tradition’ clearly has a Catholic ring to it. The reformers promoted the ‘Sola Scriptura’ principle (the Bible alone), but the Catholics believed that through the centuries the church has generated a treasury of wisdom and insight (the tradition) that provides a source of revelation, besides the Bible. This, of course, was totally at odds with the views of men like Calvin and Luther, et cetera, and their spiritual heirs.

Adventist not merely see a dubious aspect when they look at tradition. For them the word points to a complex of phenomena that must be firmly rejected. Of course, to them the Catholic view that tradition has a similar kind of authority as the Bible, was a terrible heresy, but the Adventists also discovered in other Christian denominations a predilection for ‘dead forms’  and ‘unchangeable traditions.’ What was being said and done in various denominations, was not put to the test of Scripture, but was largely prescribed by  documents and decisions of synods which together formed the ecclesial tradition.

I could not help but think of this phenomenon of ‘tradition’, when I was watching TV last night and saw a report of ‘Prinsjesdag’.  Prinsjesdag is the day on which the Dutch Queen makes a tour through the city of the Hague, and reads a statement to the two houses of Parliament and thereby opens the new parliamentary year. I was not home in the morning when the golf-plated carriage, drawn by eight horses, made its tour through the center of the Hague, and I had not seen how the Queen had delivered her speech on behalf of the government. My wife had, however, been thoughtful enough to record the event for me. This ‘Prinsjesdag’ is an excellent example of a ‘tradition’ that developed over a few centuries and has been handed down to us. At the end of the eighteenth century Prince William V of Orange celebrated his birthday with a lot of festivities and somehow (I have not been able to find how) this day developed into our current ‘Prinsjesdag’ on the third Tuesday of the month of September. The gold-plated carriage is part of the procession since 1903, shortly after Queen Wilhelmina had received this unique vehicle as a present from the citizenry of Amsterdam, when she was crowned as head of state. Gradually the festivities have become a special occasion for the women who are part of the government and of the two houses of Parliament, to wear the most outrageous hats.

What do I think of all this? To be honest, I would not make a special trip to the Hague and be there at dawn to get a good spot from where I might catch a glimpse of Her Majesty as she comes by in her golden vehicle. Yet, this kind of thing does give a certain color to life. A nation cannot do without at least some of these traditions.

Last Sunday I was caught out in Brussels, Belgium, by the fact that it was a car-free Sunday.  I had convened a meeting of the governing body of the Adventist Church in Belgium, and all committee members had to find a way to reach the office in Brussels by public transport. I had expected to hear a fair amount of complaint. But there was nothing of the sort. After eleven years, the car-free Sunday in the main cities of Belgium has become a much appreciated tradition, which most Belgians want to keep. Everywhere in Brussels I saw markets and other festivities. The bicycles were omnipresent and had all the space they wanted. Kids on their roller skates had taken possession of the asphalt on the main ring road around the city center. When, after my meeting, I walked the 25 minutes or so to the South Station, I felt increasingly positive about this whole thing. Yes, I thought, this is really a good tradition!

It would be wrong to be locked into traditions that must be observed in every tiny detail. Yes, traditions must have continuity, but there must also be the freedom to constantly adapt. Some traditions may gradually disappear, while other, new traditions, will emerge. We need traditions in our own lives, in the region or country where we live, and also in the faith community of which we are part. It contributes to what we call identity.

To be quite honest, if some traditions would disappear from my church, I would not miss them. But a church must definitely have traditions. If there is nothing we can hand on to those who will come after us, things that we find important and that make us what we are—and this is more than a list of ‘fundamental beliefs’—we are in a sorry state indeed.

Being grateful for the traditions that have been handed on to us, while feeling free to adapt these, when and where desirable, and creating new traditions ourselves and handing these on to those who come after us—this make a faith community into a living movement.

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Pietje Bell and Donald Duck

 

From time to time I receive an e-mail in which Piet Schreuders from Arnhem comments on my blogs. This week there was such a mail message. He commented on the list of books that I had enumerated in my previous blog and of which I had mentioned how important these books had been for me. Piet proceeded to mention some literary master pieces that through the years had fed his aging soul. He mentioned a few titles of children books that were very popular in the Netherlands, over half a century ago. But he also mentioned the fascinating books by Karl May and the works of Peter Cheyney, the ‘famous’ author of an endless series of crime novels, who has now been dead for almost 60 years.

Well, maybe I ought to confess that my mind has not just been nourished by theological works of high quality, but that I also can enjoy all kinds of secular, more or less literary, products. I am an avid reader of biographies and autobiographies, and there are several Dutch authors whose books I will read as soon as they come off the press. In my library you will find at least fifty titles of P. G. Woodhouse, the British author whose sense of humor is unsurpassed.  And you can always tempt me with a good espionage story or crime novel. Et cetera.

Something I read today on the website of the Christian daily Dagblad Trouw reminded me of the hot discussions in my childhood years about what a Christian (and most certainly a Christian child) ought and ought not to read. My mother had some interesting ideas in this respect. When I had succeeded in learning and reciting all 66 Bible books in the correct order, I was rewarded with a book that recounted the experiences of a rather naughty boy called Daantje.  And another book in that same series became mine when I has fully mastered the complete list of the OT judges (from Othniel to Samuel). The book entitled Dick Trom, about another naughty boy, was considered OK for a Christian boy, my mother had decided. But another book (about a boy called Pietje Bell) was definitely taboo, she thought.

Nonetheless, I managed to read several books filled with the dubious adventures of this Pietje Bell. From time to time I was sent for a few days to Amsterdam where I stayed with a couple that were good acquaintances of my parents. Mr. van der Meer, as the gentleman was called, was a rather solid type (in a spiritual sense, I mean). He was a church elder and would easily have qualified for the place on the Guiness Book of Records in the rubric of those who can say the longest prayers.  But, what happened? I discovered in his bookcase. among the commentaries on the Book of Revelation by Uriah Smith and others, a copy of a book from the Pietje Bell series. Life is indeed full of surprises. And at the time I already knew that we must be thankful for small mercies.

Later, as a teenager, I was extremely surprised when I saw in the library of the Adventist pastor of my local church a whole shelf filled with rather big books, bound in black covers. I soon discovered that these were bound copies of the Donald Duck weekly that our pastor had discovered in a second hand bookshop. Apparently, he was an avid reader of Donald Duck stories.

Back  to the daily Dagblad Trouw. I read a short item about a rather conservative Calvinistic pastor, a certain reverend Muilwijk in the coastal village of Katwijk, who exhorts his parishioners that reading the Donald Duck weekly is definitely ‘sinful’.  It contains lots of stories, he says, that are opposed to important Christian values. Think for a moment of the three small ducks who are always in the company of their uncle Donald. Is it not definitely unhealthy when such youthful characters dot not receive the care of a father and a mother, but are educated by a single elderly male? And there also appears to be quite a bit wrong with the attitude of the rich uncle Dagobert and aunt Catherine. It is seems that nowadays there are also stories in this despicable journal about a witch that is involved with weird magic.  So, definitely, this is not suitable material for Christian children (or Christian adults, for that matter!) And yes, it is a news item that dates from 2012!

It did make me think of the time when even watching the Polygoon film news was rather doubtful, if only because of the fact that it could entice you to go to the cinema. But the creepy, and often rather cruel, fairy tales of Grimm and others were considered OK. And the incredible naïve bedtime stories of Uncle Arthur were almost as sacred as the stories from a popular Dutch children’s Bible (including the murderous OT stories). Once in a while reflecting  on the past and on the moral ideas of a previous generation certainly helps to relativize some of the things we face today!

 

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Seventy

 

This weekend I will turn seventy. It is a rather odd feeling: Yes, I am that old!  In some regions of the Netherlands every fifth birthday (60, 65, 70, etc.) gets a lot of extra attention. Admittedly: I will have to get used to people saying: ‘Ah, you are now in your early seventies’, rather than: ‘in your late sixties.’

But why give it much further thought? After all, today I am only one day older than yesterday, and tomorrow I will be only one day older than today. And this is how it has been for seventy years. So, what’s the big deal?

On the other hand, however, it is a milestone. Especially since other people will see it as such.  The poet who wrote the Psalms saw reaching the age of 70 or 80, respectively, as serious moments. But I try to be a little more positive about it than he was. For him there was not much left at that age but misery and trouble. So far, I have had a life without too much misery. I have more reason to be thankful than to feel miserable.

It seems natural at moments like these to look back. What have been the most important moments for me in those seventy years? Who were the most important people for me? What were my major mistakes and failures? What have been my achievements (if any)?

From time to time I look back on my pilgrimage in the domain of theology and in the development of my faith. Where was I some fifty, forty, thirty, twenty or even ten years ago? And where am I today? Has there been a clear development? Have I arrived somewhere? Or have I gotten stuck somewhere in the wilderness? My response to such questions can only be very subjective. Others may look at my life very differently. That is OK, as long as they realize that they do not know my full story, as I know it myself!

How may I best chart my theological journey? By checking my memories? By analyzing my sermons from past decades? By comparing the books and articles that I wrote? This could all possibly be useful. But this morning it occurred to me that I might try to make a short list of the ten books that through the years have had a major influence on my thinking. I can assure you that I read more than ten books! But this may give some indication as to where I was heading through the years.

Here then is a little list with titles and the approximate year I which I read the book:

1. Fundamentalism (James Barr) – ca. 1966.  During my M.A. studies at Andrews University I got hold of this book that has become a classic. It opened my eyes to the phenomenon of fundamentalism. It did much to save me from the trap of fundamentalism.

2. Church Dogmatics, vol. I.2:  The Revelation of God (Karl Barth).  ca.  1973.  It was part of a reading assignment for one of the topics I was studying when working on my B.D. at the University of London. It was ‘heavy going’ and I managed only 2 or 3 pages per hour. Barth’s treatment of the Trinity, in particular, taught me that human words can never adequately define the mystery of the divine.

3. Teach Yourself Philosophy of Religion  – ca. 1973.  This was one of books I had to read for the class in philosophy of religion when working on my B.D. It opened up a world that was until then totally foreign to me. It was a first encounter with the problems that occupy philosophers of religion, and with issues that, increasingly,  were also of personal importance to me.

4. Speaking Well of God (Edward Vick) – ca.  1980.  Written by a British Adventist theologian, who is usually regarded as rather ‘liberal’. For me, this book was the first systematic attempt that I had seen in the Adventist Church to deal with the doctrine of God. It strongly stimulated my theological interest.

5. Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America -1740-1845  (Catherine A Brekius) – ca. 1999.  As an Adventist Christian I have always had plenty of questions about the nature of the experiences of Ellen G. White. This book deals with religious developments in the USA, in the time of Mrs. White. It describes how the prophetic gift was quite common, especially among women in Methodist circles. It made it clear to me that the phenomena that we see in connection with Ellen White were not quite as unique as many Adventists tend to think. It provided me with much background information that helped me to get a more balanced picture of her ministry.

6. What’s So Amazing about Grace? (Philip Yancey). – ca. 2000. A popular bestseller that helped me—better than any other book on the topic—to understand the mystery of grace.

7. The Cost of Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) – a.  1995.  This book indeed shows ’where the rubber hits the road’. It reminded me again and again of the burning question: What does my faith mean in concreto? How does it affect the crucial choices that I make?

8. Warranted Christian Belief  (Alvin Plantinga) – ca. 2000. One of the most important books I ever read. It helped me to find answers to questions that became increasingly urgent, in particular about the key issue that always remains in the background: Can I be absolutely sure that what I believe is true?

9. Hans Küng’s  autobiografie, 2 dl.  – 2003, 2007.  The inspiring life story of a great man who has for decades lived with the tension of what his church expected of him and what he himself thought and believed—but who remained loyal to both (to the church and to himself). There is much that I can identify with.

10. Jezus van Nazareth (Joseph Ratzinger) – 2007. I cannot agree with all that the author says. But I have no doubt that the person who wrote this book, whatever his faults may be, and whatever we may deplore in the institution that he leads, truly knows Jesus!

These are ten books that may be seen as road signs along my pilgrimage. Looking back I conclude: Yes, this pilgrimage has led me somewhere. I have been at many beautiful places. But I am not there yet! One’s spiritual journey and growth are never complete and one’s life remains: ‘under construction’. Even at seventy.

 

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