Sermon

 

[Tuesday morning, October 16] Saturday afternoon, around five pm I realized it was about the time that the president of the highest body of the Adventist world church (the General Conference] was to preach an important sermon. It has become a tradition that the top church leader (this is the kind of terminology that is increasingly used), preaches during the worship service that is held on the Saturday morning of the Annual Council—the annual administrative council where some 300 delegates gather from around the world. My hunch that the service might be streamed by Hope Channel over the Internet, proved to be correct. I followed the service as if I was seated in one of the comfortable chairs in the auditorium of the church’s headquarters in Silver Spring.

Of course, I tried to recognize some well-known faces whenever the camera turned to the audience. And, indeed, I saw many people I know, but I failed to see the president of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands, who is one of the delegates during this five-day conference. [His wife, whom I saw on Sunday, however assured me that her husband was there!]

Ever since, over two years ago, Ted Wilson was elected as the church’s president, his sermons at important occasions, such as during an Annual Council, have been scrutinized by many around the world. More than in the past, the presidential sermons have become explanations of the program that he wants to realize during his presidency, and serve as an update on the various ‘presidential initiatives’ that the church has voted in the past two years and is in the process of implementing. When Wilson preached his much debated and widely distributed (through dvd’s) sermon in Atlanta in 2010, it became clear what things he was going to emphasize during his term in office. The reactions at the time varied greatly. Some were happy and felt that now at last the church would go in the right direction. Others were extremely disappointed, since they felt a new direction was announced that would set the clock half a century backwards.

In the past two years Wilson has, in a number of important speeches and sermons, repeated his emphases and talked about the initiatives that he has proposed and that the church has adopted. Among these initiatives are such as projects as, the Revival and Revelation theme, a massive distribution of the book The Great Controversy, evangelism in the megacities of the world, an emphasis on the traditional historicist interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation and the sanctuary, and a renewed focus on the books of Ellen G. White. Now another traditional theme is added: the integration of the ‘health message’ with other church growth activities.

The sermon of last Saturday afternoon (Dutch time) fitted the expected framework. Wilson based his sermon on a well-known portion of Scripture, Matthew 14. But he quoted Ellen White far more often than he quoted from the Bible. All ‘presidential initiatives’ mentioned above, were revisited. But he emphasized, in particular, the importance of unity, with clear allusions to the recent developments with regard to the ordination of female pastors and the decisions of some church entities to chart their own course. By so doing, Wilson, in fact, made his sermon into a church political speech.

Someone who had been physically present during the sermon commented that ‘it could have been worse’. That was exactly my conclusion after I had listened attentively. Does that conclusion show my lack of trust in the leadership of the church? Have I distanced myself too far from a number a traditional Adventist ideas and methods? Haven I been influenced too much by a postmodern way of thinking? Whatever answer one might give to such questions, it is a plain fact that many share in my feelings and concerns. The current leadership of the church would, I think, do well to initiate an intensive dialogue about this, if indeed the leaders are concerned about the unity of the church.

There is, however, another worrisome aspect. This sermon was once again a striking example of how communication fails when we do not use the language of the people of today. The sermon was so loaded with Adventist jargon that the non-Adventist person who happened to have seen the Hope Channel broadcast, will most likely have understood very little of what was being said. And I suppose that many (in particular, young) church members would also have wondered what it all meant. Their comment would probably be: ‘ What was this all about?’

I saw a short video clip of the explanation given by Gary Krause, one of the church growth experts at the church’s headquarters, of the new emphasis on the integration of the message for the spirit and the care for the body. He stated in clear everyday language exactly the same as Wilson tried to convey when he spoke about the message of health reform and the role of health ministries as the right arm of the three-angels message. Their topic was the same, but they communicated to very different audiences. Unfortunately, Wilson does not seem to realize this.

During the Annual Council week I will use all available channels that I have to follow the proceedings of the Annual Council closely. There are some important items on the agenda. I continue to trust that the Lord of the church will correct the course that human beings steer and that may at times get us to some undesirable stops along the way to the Kingdom!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

America

 

In a review of his newest book (Reizen zonder John), Geert Mak is characterized as the kind of history teacher you always wanted to have during your secondary school years. That is, indeed, the feeling I have, now that I am about half way in the book about his journey through America. When he realized that fifty years ago John Steinbeck—then seventy-five years old—decided to make a months long trek through the USA, in an old converted truck, and to write about his adventure, Geert Mak (and several others) decided to retrace the route that Steinbeck travelled and also write about it.

Mak’ s skills as a writer are the guarantee for a book that is very readable and that offers a wealth of information. But it is not an objective report. Mak’s view of the USA is quite similar to the opinion I have, over the years, formed of the US. One might summarize it as follows: America is a superb land for a long vacation, but it it not the kind of place where you would want to live permanently.

I easily recognize much of what Mak writes about, because these were things that I have also noticed. Newly married, my wife and I lived in Michican in 1965-1966, where I did my masters at Andrews University. Later, in the nineties of the past century, we were there again for some years, as I worked at the same university. In addition, many work assignments, meetings and vacations brought me to at least 25 different states. And in preparation for the book that I wrote in 1998 about spiritual life in America[1], I read voraciously about the history of America and about American religious history.

I would not be surprised if I knew about as much about the United States as Geert Mak does. But my interest is not based on Steinbeck’s journey through America, but on the fact that I am a member of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination that has its roots in the USA. Through my study of American history and my first hand knowledge of American culture, I think I have succeeded in acquiring a thorough understanding of many aspects of Adventism, and also have been able to chart the main differences between American and European Adventism.[2]

One of the specifically American characteristics that I see time and time again in my church, is the tendency towards pragmatism. Of course, theology has an important place in the church, but the emphasis is above all on the mission of the church, that must be executed as efficiently as possible. The church is almost addicted to statistics and to strategies with deadlines and projections. Things must, first of all, be useful! There is a strong emphasis on constant activity. All of this is decidedly American.

One of the decidedly ‘American’ phenomena is that of the ‘independent ministries’, also often referred to as  para-church organizations. It is not known how many independent ministries exist within Adventism, but the number is estimated at more than one thousand. If a church member in the USA sees a challenge, there is often an immediate urge to do something about it. It does not seem wise to wait untill the organized church begins to consider that challenge. No, one asks: How much money does it take? And how much manpower is needed?  Then, the fundraising starts and the work begins. Some organizations seek to work closely with the church, while in other cases that is hardly the case, or not at all. Many European church members do not like this approach. It may fit into the American culture with its pragmatic orientation, but much less so in European culture.

It is just one example.  I am now continuing with my reading about the journey (without John Steinbeck, whence the title) that Mak describes. He has just taken me from Detroit, via Kalamazoo to Chicago. I can easily picture what he describes. It is fascinating. But I am more convinced than ever that I would not want to exchange the Dutch polder around Zeewolde for Michigan, Indiana or Illinois. [And I certainly do prefer the European brand of Adventism over the American version of my church.]

 


[1] Reinder Bruinsma, Geloven in Amerika: Kerken, Geschiedenis en Geloof van Christenen in de Verenigde Staten (Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, 1998).

[2]  Reinder Bruinsma, ‘Culture and Adventism: Europe and the United States as a Case Study’,  Spectrum, winter 2005.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment