A busy week

(Wednesday evening 28 November)  This will be a short blog. When you are tired, you seem to catch a bit of flu more easily, and, unfortunately, this is my current fate.  I returned home on Monday morning after an grueling 8-day series of appointments. Together with my friend and colleague Peter Roennfeldt I toured Belgium and Luxembourg. He did about 70 percent of all the talking, while I drove the 2.300 kilometers to the various places. We held 17 meetings in just over a week, with all kinds of informal contacts in between.

Peter Roennfeldt now lives in  Australia, but he knows the European scene well, having lived there for some ten years. He presently is a ‘church growth consultant’. In between two weeks of teaching at the German Friedensau University and visits to a few Danish ‘church plants’ he reserved eight days for us in Belgium. He gave  presentations on church growth—through the ‘planting’ of new churches, working with small groups and Alpha courses, etc. And we visited local churches and talked with groups of members who have shown interest in getting involved in local initiatives, and with some church boards about ways to ‘revitalize’ their church.

It was very worthwhile. Of course, people talk about their disappointments and frustrations. So much has been tried, and with so little success. But everywhere there are also church members who ask for advice and training and who say: ‘ Give us the tools!’  And so, we explored possibilities on which we may build further in the coming months.

But it does take a fair amount of energy. It reminds me of what Jan Paulsen, the former president of the General Conference, said to me last year: ‘I wished that thirty years ago I would have had the experience I have today, and that I would now have the energy that I had thirty years ago.’  (His name pops up in my mind since I had an e-mail from him just a few days ago in which he told about his recent private visit to the King of Norway; as we speak of former GC presidents: Robert Folkenberg sent me a message this week that he had endorsed me on LinkedIn for various fields of expertise. Quite a surprise, since in the past we have not always seen eye to eye.)

Today I made a quick dash by train to Brussels to chair a officers’ meeting of the conference. We managed to deal with about half of the 46 items on our agenda. My colleagues had a hard time listening to my strangely flu-deformed voice.  As I write I have almost arrived home. I intend to have an early night . Tomorrow morning is reserved for some shopping, for the Saint Nicholas presents needs to arrive with our grandchildren in Sweden before December 5.

This is all for now.  I hope to be in better shape next week when I write my next blog.

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Heaven and hell

 

The  General Synod of the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands recently studied the question whether hell does indeed exist. According to the Heidelberger Catechism—one of the documents on which the theology of this church is based—things are quite clear: hell is an eternally burning fire in which the godless will be punished for ever, while the believers will enjoy all kinds of  pleasurable things in heaven. A church member from Haarlem submitted a gravamen. That is a Latin word for an official doctrinal objection. (For a moment I was a bit jealous. I sometimes get nasty complaints by e-mail, but never a gravamen.)  The 79-year old mr. Bokhout insisted that you cannot prove from the Bible that the traditional picture of hell as an eternally burning place of torture is correct. For how does this fit with all we know about a God of love?

The General Synod admitted that it was faced with a difficult question, but it did not want to go against the Heidelberger Catechism, and the official response remained rather vague as to how the contemporary believer was to define the meaning of hell.

Through the ages, there has been a constant flow of new ideas about the final destiny of mankind. Those who know something of the history of art realize that artists have used all kinds of images to picture both the terror of hell and the delights of heaven. Christians and other believers have theorized about hell. For some heaven will be a very concrete pleasure park where men will be able to enjoy the ample presence of very willing virgins. Others speak of heaven in very abstract terms. And there are endless varieties of opinion in between these two approaches.  This also applies to hell.

Today many theologians and many Christians in a wide range of denominations doubt the eternal nature of the punishment of the godless. Some tend to think that all people will ultimately be saved. They feel that God’s love is the guarantee for a happy ending for every human being. Others do not want to go that far. Yet, the traditional Adventist point of view is increasingly shared by others: Heaven is the place where the faithful will live forever in a state of perfection. Hell is the name for the second, final death, the total annihilation of evil and the absolute end of all who have chosen to lead a life opposed to the will of God. For them it is over! Finito! Finished! For ever. The punishment is eternal in its consequences.

I have often wondered how to imagine heaven and hell. I certainly want to go to heaven, but much of what I read about it, and hear about it in church, does not seem very attractive.  It seems quite far removed from the things that now fill my life and make it enjoyable. Of course, I like the fact that there will be no more sickness and that people will no longer die and will no longer fight with each other. But for ever playing on a harp and joining a choir at the ‘sea of glass’ –has little appeal for me.

And hell? I have often wondered why for goodness sake a resurrection of the godless is needed, if they will be destroyed soon after they have come back to life.  Sure, I know the answers that are usually given to that type of questions. But I continue to find them rather unsatisfactory.

How could we describe the essence of heaven and hell?  I tend to think that the most important aspect we find in the Bible is the fact that heaven is the place where God is present with the people. And hell is the place where God is totally absent. And does this not lead to the conclusion that we can experience heaven already on earth, and that life in the here and now can also become a hell? Not primarily because of external factors that bring either happiness or misery, but as a result of the space that we give to God in our lives. Heaven is first of all a way of life, a way of being, in which God is abundantly present. Hell is the completely opposite.

Of course, the eschatological dimension—to use proper theological terminology—is important. This eternal dimension places our temporal life in the right perspective. But as I start this day, the first question is not whether I will ultimately make it to heaven, but whether heaven is a reality in my present life. Was this not what Christ meant when He said that his coming kingdom must already be present with us?

Getting back to the topic of hell: Fear of eternal misery has never been a good motive to stay on the safe side and become religious—since one never knows! Just suppose that hell would exist!

Hell is not a topic that primarily relates to the future. It is a present reality. For hell is: living in the absence of God. It is the choice to exclude God. A choice for nothingness and emptiness. Heaven is: welcoming God in our life and giving Him the space  He wants.  Today. We can safely leave the rest until later.

 

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Mixed feelings

 

During three consecutive Sundays almost two hundred delegates gathered in the small town of Scherpenzeel to debate and decide about the state of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. They looked critically at the 2007-2012 period. Repeatedly, it was concluded that some things had not gone as they should.  This explains why several proposals were brought (and accepted) to do some reparatory work, and to prevent similar problems in the future. At times the discussion was quite heated. But, after all, important issues were at stake.

The re-election of union president Wim Altink was a lengthy and painful procedure. Even during the last of the three days of the session, some wanted to re-open the proces.  It was suggested that there had been some procedural faults, but there was no majority to reconsider what had been decided. The choice of Tom de Bruin as general secretary was far from unanimous. Was his age (33) a problem?  I must admit that I was surprised by the choice and that the point of his age momentarily entered my mind. But I almost immediately remembered that I was even a few years younger when I got my first administrative church assignment. The name of the new treasurer also came as a surprise to most people, but, apparently, the information that was provided about his financial expertise was so satisfactory, that a quick and comfortable vote resulted. When the other positions were named, the choice of Hans Ponte as youth leader was totally unexpected. But it passed without any difficulty. I must express my admiration for someone who at age 60 is willing to assume such a (also physically) demanding task.

I was happy that the discussion and the voting on the motions that had been passed on to the plan committee for further discussion, went so well. For several hours the Plans Committee met and considered what would be, or would not be, in the interest of the church, and what wording would be most suitable. It was my privilege to chair this committee and then to provide further information about our conclusions to the plenary session.  All of this took so much of my energy that, when I came home, I had no interest in anything but to take my wife to the local pizzeria, where I could order my favorite pizza (quattro fromaggio).

All together, the rather easy-going afternoon session on the third day made me go home with a more positive feeling than I had at the end of the first and of the second day. But I had very mixed emotions. Yes, we had managed to complete the agenda. And yes, I was happy with the choice of the new leaders of the Dutch Adventist Church and of the new union committee. And, yes, I was satisfied that no decisions had been made during this three-day event that would have turned the clock of the church backwards for a good number of years.

But there was another side to it. I can understand that there may be a degree of suspicion when leaders have failed to be fully transparent. And I can understand that some will oppose proposals that are brought by the nominating committee. And I understand also that some delegates regret some tendencies in the church, and do not like some of the ideas that were expressed in various motions (such as the one about the principle of full equality of men and women in the church). Or, to make it a bit more personal: I can accept that others in the church may disagree with me on some points.

But I utterly fail to understand how people can vote against a motion tot calls for more mutual understanding and tolerance in the church. And that some hesitate to subscribe to the ideal of our church as a faith community that wants to be involved with the society around us. The burning question is: How for Heaven’s sake can we ensure that, in spite of differences of opinions and cultural diversity, we stay united in things that truly matter and dedicate ourselves as one people to the mission that we have.

This thought keeps going through my mind as I sit (this Monday afternoon) in the high speed train to Paris, where in the coming days I will be representing the Belgian-Luxembourg Conference during the autumn meeting of Franco-Belgian union. I trust that these two days of meeting will not produce much firework. In fact, I almost regard these days as a short vacation, after a few hectic weeks and just before a very full week with the Australian church growth expert Peter Roennfeldt, with whom I will visit more than a dozen churches in Belgium and Luxembourg.  I hope it will be an inspiration for many.

 

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Elections and 100

 

[Wednesday morning November 7, 7 am].  I just put on the television in my hotel room in Kortrijk (close to the Belgian-French border), where last night I had an important meeting.  I had hoped for an Obama victory, and my hope had been fulfilled. Barack Obama will have another four years as president of the USA. He will undoubtedly have some difficult years ahead of him, for he will meet stiff resistance from a Congress with a republican majority. But everything is to be preferred over a republican president, whether his name is Bush or Romney. Most of the readers of my Dutch blog will agree with this. If the Dutch people would have had the task of electing the US president, the current president Obama would have been re-elected with a very comfortable majority of at least 80 percent. Many of my American readers of the English edition of this blog, however, are disappointed, for, unfortunately, a very sizable part of the American Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, votes Republican. I will never be able to understand this. While I am writing these lines, I am listening to Romney’s speech in which he admits his loss. It is remarkably reconciliatory in tone.  Obama has yet to give his acceptance speech.

This week China will also elect a new leader. The process is quite different from that in the USA, but the event is not less important.

Yes, and the Adventist Church in the Netherlands is also in the midst of elections. Last Sunday, during the second day of the Union session, the president was elected for the next five years. There was great uncertainty, until the very last moment, but in the end Wim Altink was re-elected. I had hoped that this would happen. But, like Obama, he must face the reality that many people wanted a different leader. I am happy that he accepted the assignment in spite of the strong opposition. He has experienced that leadership can be very challenging. But, fortunately, he has a leadership role in a church and one may expect that the choice of the majority will be respected and that he will receive full support. We pray that he may have the strength to truly lead.

But I start this day also with thoughts of a different kind.  November 7 is my mother’s birthday. Exactly one hundred years ago today, she was born. She did not live to be a hundred. We had to accompany her to her place of rest when she was 79, now some 21 years ago. November 8, tomorrow, was the birthday of my youngest sister. Tomorrow she would have turned 62, but she had to be satisfied with about half that number of years. It is not something I think about every day, but once in a while it underscores for me the realization that we all live just a day at a time, and we do not know when our name comes up.

Each day brings new surprises. When about half an hour ago I opened my e-mail, I saw an invitation to attend a congress of Adventists theologians, next March, in Beirut, Lebanon, where I am supposed to read a paper. I had not really expected this invitation, considering that  I am no longer ‘active’ in church work, in the regular sense of the word.

With these various thoughts in mind, I will go down to the ground floor to take my breakfast. Before hitting the road, I will spend some time reading, since I want to avoid the rush hour around Antwerp. I am reading a biography of the great, but at times bizarre, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Then, while I drive the 280 kilometers to Zeewolde, where I live, I will no doubt have the opportunity to listen to all kinds a analyses of the US election by ‘America-experts’.

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History

 

In spite of a busy schedule I managed to read in the past ten days a book that was written by the Dutch historian A.Th. van Deurssen, who died last year.  I am referring to In Katwijk is Alles Anders (All is different in Katwijk), which came off the press in 2011. I did not buy the book because of any special tie between me and Katwijk. But earlier books by this author had fascinated me, in particular his Een Dorp in de Polder (A village in the polder, 1994).

In Een Dorp in de Polder van Deurssen writes about daily life in Graft in the 17th century. Graft is a small place not far from Alkmaar, about 25 miles North of Amsterdam. As a child and teenager I lived about 6 miles away from this place. But at the time I had no idea about the illustrious history of this tiny town, which in the seventh century was well-known for its whale hunting far away in the Northern part of the Atlantic Ocean. All kinds of coincidences have resulted in the interesting fact that more sources about the daily life  in Graft during the ‘Golden Age’ have been preserved  than of any other town or village in Holland.  The interesting thing about van Deurssen’s book is not only that it informs us in detail about the lives of a few families in Graft in that period, but that it, by doing so, in fact offers us a much better insight into this period than we get from most classical history books.

The author deals with history in the way that has great appeal for me. That was the reason why I succumbed to the temptation to purchase this book about Katwijk. He follows more or less the same process as in his book about Graft. He chronicles very capably the developments of Katwijk over the past 60-70 years. But, without emphasizing the point, van Deurssen uses the changes in this conservative fishing village to demonstrate what happened in most parts of the Dutch Bible Belt. And, one might say that the book actually offers an excellent picture of the relentless progress of secularization in the Netherlands as it freed itself from its strong Calvinistic roots.

Other historians have used the same model. A famous example is the study by Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie, who a few decades ago—in his book Montaillou— gave a detailed description of how the Inquisition operated in a small fourteenth century village in the Spanish Pyrenees. The inhabitants of that village were suspected of belonging to the sect of the Cathars (often also referred to as Albigenses), a movement that was hated by the medieval Church. Though the book seems to be very limited in scope [a few families in a small village], one gets nonetheless the feeling that it provides a through survey of the Cathar movement—of what these ‘heretics’ believed, of what motivated them and of how they were treated. (Unfortunately, I no longer have the book. When in the late 1980’s I lived in Cameroon, I lent the book to the Dutch ambassador, but he failed to return it!)

History books often focus on the role of important leaders and their great achievements (or the lack thereof). Usually little attention is given to the lives of ordinary people, and, as a result, the reader gets a very limited and rather one-sided picture of what, in fact, happened. That is also true with respect to the history of the church. When dealing, for instance, with the history of the reformation of the sixteenth century, the emphasis usually is on men like Calvin and Luther and their associates. We hear preciously little, however, about the experiences of the men and women in the pews, or about how it was for a village priest to evolve into a Reformed minister.

Historians of the Advent movement tend to stress the role of important church leaders—the ‘pioneers’ of the early period and the presidents of the General Conference who followed—and the proceedings of the most prominent church meetings (such as the conferences of 1888 and 1901). But that does not tell the full story of the development of Adventism.

The history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Netherlands cannot be pictured by means of the photo gallery of union presidents in the corridor on the ground floor of the union office building (even though I am pleased to see my picture among them).

If someone would consider to write a history of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands, one might want to focus on just one local church and research the history of that particular church: What has happened there over the years, and what processes were at work? How did that church function in the 1950’s? What did worship look like fifty years ago? And thirty years ago? And today? How did evangelism change through the years? What do the minutes of the church board reveal about disciplinary measures? Etc. Etc. This could give a fascination picture of the actual history of Dutch Adventism. Let us hope that someone will feel the calling to write such a book.

 

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