Soccer lessons

 

I am not a soccer enthusiast. The number of soccer matches that I have ever watched on tv can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I have not closely followed the European soccer championships that are currently held in France and are now almost ended. That fact that my own country did not qualify for this tournament did not worry me at all.

During the first few days of the event my reactions were dominated by irritation. The clashes between British and Russian fans were in my opinion (and this view was widely shared) disgusting. I was afraid that this would become a feature of the entire tournament. But, fortunately, that was not the case.

I did, however, pay some attention to the role of Iceland and of Wales. The teams of those two very small nations were able to reach the quarter finals. The team of Iceland (330.000 inhabitants) lost 2-5 against France, while the team from Wales (3 million inhabitants) had to recognize Portugal as stronger than they were (0-2).

It would have been quite extraordinary if the two teams had won these two matches. No doubt many Icelandic and Welsh supports hoped for that kind of miracle. But when they returned home, they were given the kind of enthusiastic welcome, as if they had won the world cup. The people were ecstatic about the success of their team.

It makes one think. The people were not sad because their team had lost, but thy were excited about what they had accomplished. The loss in the quarter finals felt in fact like a big success. What they had done far exceeded all expectations. Would it not be great of people in general (ourselves included) would be more like the Icelanders and the Welsh and would much less focus on things that did not succeed and would simply be happy and thankful for the things that did turn out well?

This soccer lesson reminded me of a Norwegian soccer team. A few years ago Sigve Tonstad, a Norwegian scholar who teaches at the American Loma Linda University, wrote a chapter for the Festschrift for dr. Jan Paulsen (the president of the Adventist world church in the 1999-2010 period), which I had the honor to edit.  It was entitled: ‘The Nimble Foot.’ In his creative and inspiring contribution Tonstad tells the story of the soccer team of Trondheim—a Norwegian town with only about 170.000 inhabitants.  At the end of the last century the Rosenborg team won the competition in the national league no less than thirteen (!) times and it played against against some of the greatest teams of Europe, as for instance AC Milan.

Tonstad applied the major elements of the strategy of this successful team with the way in which organizations (such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church) should be led. One of the crucial principles of the trainer of the Rosenborg team was that each player should not aim at being the star of the game, but should do everything possible to build on the strengths of the other players and make them excel.

The accomplishments of the Trondheim team has a great lesson for all of us. We can do more of we do not constantly compete with one another, but do everything we can to ensure that the people which whom we work can excel.

Maybe I should pay more attention to the soccer phenomenon. Who knows how many other wise lessons I might encounter.

 

 

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Kinship and the Ellen White Foundation

 

Eleven or twelve years ago the first ‘Open Day’ was organized on the grounds around the office of the Dutch Adventist Church. I have been a regular visitor of this event and hope that this event, that I helped to initiate, will long continue.

Perhaps the time has come, however, for a thorough evaluation to determine whether the present format needs to be adjusted. I leave that to the current church administrators. And, speaking about evaluation, I am not thinking about the abominable weather last Sunday during Open Day 2016. The influence of the Dutch union leaders on the weather is presumably rather limited. However, I have the impression that the annual event has gradually been somewhat hijacked by individuals and persons who (I think) do not really represent middle-of-the-road Adventism. I am thinking, in particular, of the stalls with publications from the right fringe of the church. I would not plead for refusing access to these independent organizations, but I do hope that a better balance can be established  by having more stalls that present and support the activities of the broader church and the union organization.

I applaud the presence of the Stanborough Press. However, it puzzles me why the people of the SP have no clear signs as to where they are hiding and do not make a better effort to also offer the newest Adventist English language publications. Unfortunately, there was (once again) nothing there for me and this was a complaint of quite a few others as well.

When entering the grounds I was asked to contribute two euros as a parking fee. I was told that the upkeep of the estate does cost a lot of money. I must admit this irritated me greatly. Paying two euro is not really a problem for me, but it was strangely at odds with the large ‘welcome’ banner that greeted me. Is it really a good idea to make people who, on the average, perhaps give a thousands euros to their church, pay for parking at such an event?

As in previous years Kinship (a worldwide organization serving Adventist homosexuals) was present with a stall. I hope their presence will also be a continuing tradition. It is important that church members are informed about the ramifications of have a different sexual orientation. But it would seem to me that the Kinship stall could be quite a bit more exciting and attractive!

It is not only funny but also quite meaningful that the stall of the Kinship representatives and that of the Dutch Ellen White Foundation were neighbors and stood side by side. In many countries that might not be possible. It is good to see that at the Dutch ‘Open Day’ this is no real problem. Perhaps this is the most convincing argument for a generous policy for participation in this event. I am very much in favor of welcoming Kinship. But no doubt others feel differently and feel more affinity with the stalls with a conservative flavor. I understand that, allowing Kinship to participate would also suggest that people at the other end of the denominational spectrum should be welcome. Last Sunday I had to remind myself of  as I was moving from stall to stall. When all is said and done: the Dutch ‘Open Day; is a good object lesson in tolerance for diversity.

 

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Brexit and oecumenism

 

It was predicted to be very close. Would the 46 million Brits who were entitled to vote decide that the UK should remain in the EU, or would they turn their backs on Brussels?  Many polls of the last few weeks and days suggested that the Brexit could well become a reality, and, indeed, a small majority of those who cast their votes decided that leaving is better than remaining.

A much heard argument during the campaign that preceded the referendum was that it is high time for the British to regain their national identity. Many are convinced that its national identity is at severe risk when a country has very strong ties with an international organization in which a group of countries together make rules and decide on common economic and political policies. As a result of EU membership a country can no longer make its own sovereign decisions, but is taken hostage by Brussels, it is argued. The British uniqueness will slowly but surely disintegrate even further than it already has.

Of course, cooperation with others requires accepting compromises and giving up certain aspects of one’s independence. That is true for all member states of the EU. But is this a serious threat to the national identity of those states? I doubt it. The British people are unique people, who live in a unique country. That is great. I have lived a number of happy years among them. Yes, I have at times been irritated by some British customs and by the way in which many things are organized. But never for a moment did I get the impression that there is any risk that the British will give up their British ‘identity’ and their British traditions. And that would also not have happened if they had voted to remain in the EU. Admittedly, there is a degree of tension between total sovereignty and close cooperation with others. But so far, I believe, the history of the EU has not shown that members states are in any real danger of losing their own identity!

The discussion concerning Brexit in some ways resembles the issue of Adventism and ecumenism. So far the Adventist Church has never become a member of, for instance, the World Council of Churches. And in most countries the Adventist Church has been reluctant in seeking full membership in national ecumenical councils. At the basis of the negative attitude of many Adventists with regard to ecumenical involvement is the fear that their church might lose its specific identity. Being a member in ecumenical organizations, it is argued by many, will inevitably result in compromises and loss of freedom to make our own decisions and, when necessary, take our own independent stand.

As in the case of Brexit it would seem that (mostly irrational) feelings of unease and emotions play a major role, rather than a solid knowledge of the relevant facts. One might say: The British have so much in common with other Europeans that it is utterly logical to do things together in some form of European unity. One might (I think) also say that Seventh-day Adventists have so much in common with other Christian faith communities that some forms of dialogue and cooperation are logical and must be actively pursued.

However, I am not calling for a referendum in which all Adventist members can vote on ecumenical involvement of their church. I am in principle against this type of plebiscite. In the realm of politics, as well as in the church, I prefer the kind of democracy in which we elect  representatives and leaders, who merit our trust and take decisions on our behalf (and who we replace by others if we are not satisfied). It is not a perfect system, but I believe it is quite a bit safer than organizing referendums.

Would closer contacts with other christians endanger our Adventist identity? A definite answer to that question would presuppose that we can define what this identity exactly is. That in itself is quite a complex issue. However, I am convinced that the ‘Adventist’  element in our christian faith is strong and flexible enough to withstand any possible danger in our cooperation with others. If our ‘Adventist identity’ is not strong enough to maintain itself in dialogue and cooperation, we might well ask ourselves whether this identity has, in fact, enough substance. I am sure it has!

 

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Donald Trump and the land-beast of Revelation 13

 

Adventists have long been fascinated by two strange symbols which we encounter in the book of Revelation. In chapter 13 we are confronted with the ‘beast from the sea’. An adventism this ‘beast’ has traditionally been linked with Roman Catholicism. Admittedly, in the recent past the Adventist Church has become a bit more careful in its anti-Catholic rhetoric, but this interpretation continues to be defended by many church members.

A bit further on in this chapter another beast enters the scene: ‘the beast from the earth’. It is stated that this beast will at some point in time support the sea-beast, even to the  extent that it will force humanity to worship the sea-beast. In traditional Adventist exegesis the land-beast symbolizes the United States of America. Eventually, it is argued,  the US will decide to link up with the pope and his cronies. Together they will target the relatively small group of believers who, in the end of time, will remain loyal to God (i.e. the ‘remnant, that keeps all God’s commandments and has the ‘testimony of Jesus’)The traditional prophetic interpretation of the Adventist Church is based on the historicist approach. This ‘school’ of interpretation maintains that the books of Daniel and Revelation predict events from the time of the prophet Daniel until the Second Coming. Another approach suggests that the content of these two Bible books must first of all be applied to the time in which they were written. The most important question is what they meant for their first readers.

Yet, even those who defend a historicist application have, by and large, become more circumspect. Many things did not happen as they were predicted. It has, in particular, become a bit quieter with regard to the ‘land-beast’. Many American Adventists have often found it rather difficult to imagine that ‘God’s own country’, this promised land of unparalleled freedom, would change into a tyranny that will utterly deny its fundamental principles.

I have some problems with the historicist approach to apocalyptic prophecy. But I might be inclined to drop a few of my objections at this point in time, when the American people are in the process of choosing a new president. I have been a keen follower of the primaries, and, together with millions in the US and elsewhere, I wonder how in high heavens it is possible that a man as Donald Trump is firmly on his way to become the presidential candidate of the Republican party. The thought occurred to me that the symbol of the ‘land-beast’ may perhaps be applied to Donald Trump. In any case, in past months he has thrown many horrendous ideas around. America and the rest of the world could be confronted with ‘beastly’ surprises, if Trump would become president. Many freedoms might be at serious risk.

I am rather surprised that so far I have not heard any Adventist voices that see a connection between Revelation 13 and Donald Trump.  Also, when dr. Ben Carson decided to enter the race for the GOP candidature, it also remained ominously silent in the camp of prophecy interpreters. When in 1928 the Catholic Al Smith became the Democratic candidate, there was a lot of commotion. Many Adventists argued that this was what prophecy had predicted: a close cooperation between he US and Rome. And when in 1960 the Catholic John  F. Kennedy aspired to become the president of the United States of America, many Adventists instantly knew how to interpret this in the light of Revelation 13. However, when in 2016 an immoral windbag, in the person of Donald Trump, is constantly in the news, I find no comments in the official denominational Adventist media. Has the Bible nothing to say about many of Trump’s detestable opinions? Never mind that he insults entire ethnic and religious groups, fosters hate, discriminates against women, criticizes the judiciary powers, wants to be friends with men like Putin and Kim-jong-un, and utters the most bizarre and contradictory statements.

I agree with the principle of my church that church and state should remain separate. However, this does not mean that the church must always remain silent in political matters. In the past the Adventist Church had a definite opinion when a presidential candidate had the ‘wrong’ religion. In the context of past times this may have been somewhat understandable. But does the church in 2016 not have the moral duty to speak up when someone with a totally dysfunctional moral compass wants to have the highest position in the United States? And would criticism of this ‘land-beast’ in the person of Trump (at least at this moment in time) not be much more relevant than just repeating the traditional interpretation of Revelation 13? In any case, this traditional interpretation is not to be fulfilled any time in the immediate future, while in just a few months a decision must be made that has far-reaching consequences for our entire planet!

 

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Respect and tolerance

 

On Sunday June 5 the Adventist church in the Netherlands held an extraordinary union session. A group of ‘concerned’ members used their statutory right to demand such a congress. In a ‘members manifesto’ they had published their views regarding a number of areas in which, they feel, the Netherlands Union is sadly amiss.  The fact that the Dutch Adventist Church has decided to ordain women pastors remains a sore poin to them, the more so, since the General Conference had closed that route. How then does the Netherlands Adventist Church dare to go its own way, against the will of the world church?

I did not attend the meeting last Sunday. I was (and still am) in Sweden. But, of course, I made sure to use all available channels to be informed about what happened.  I was relieved to hear that the motion to revoke the earlier decision to ordain female pastors failed. Some of the comments that I read suggested that the vote was too close for comfort (76-88). That the delegates who wanted to revoke the earlier decision were almost as many as those who wanted to continue with ordaining women pastors, may well (at last partly) be due to the fact that the ‘concerned’ members were more eager to participate in this session than the majority of the members, who tend to trust the current Dutch church leadership and support its policies.

Those who say that the Dutch Adventist Church is painfully divided, and that this does not bode well for the future, surely have a point. No one can deny that the polarization between those who are ‘concerned’ (the ‘conservatives’ or ‘traditionalists’, or whatever label one wants to apply) and the other members deserves close attention. But we must not over-dramatize things. The situation in the Adventist Church in the Netherlands is not unique and certainly not hopeless. Below are a few points I think we should consider:

1. In most religious movements of past and present one finds a diversity of currents of thought. The former Dutch Reformed Church is a good example. This church had a number of different ‘modalities’, from quite liberal to extremely orthodox and everything in between. Today one can see the same pattern in the new United Protestant Church of the Netherlands and other denominations. These churches function well, in spite of the internal diversity.

2. Churches with a strong international presence often have considerable problems in arriving at a consensus between all members worldwide, due to major cultural differences between countries and world regions.

3. In many western countries the influx of immigrants from non-western countries had resulted in a large measure of diversity. This has contributed to the present polarization, also  in the Netherlands. However, it also brought a major enrichment to church life.

4. A  church that is alive will inevitably experience a degree of tension between its tradition and the changing society in which it is called to live and to communicate the gospel. Not all are able to deal with this tension in a balanced way.

5. With regard to the Adventist Church in the Netherlands it cannot be denied that there are significant differences in theological opinion between the ‘right’ and the ‘left’, and in the way people value the organizational structure of the church. But this is not something new and it will undoubtedly remain with us in the future. We all come with our own background; each of us is in his/her own stage of spiritual growth, and we all read the Bible through our own lenses.

6. The greatest priority is that we learn how to give more space to one another, and to listen more intently to each other, with a willingness to learn from other points of view. This is true for those on the ‘right’ as well as for those on the ‘left’.

7. In spite of the undeniable polarization it remains important to keep in mind that, with all our differences, we have certainly enough in common to be one people with one common goal.

8. The problem that appears to be so immense will become much more manageable when we respect the opinions of those who differ from us, rather than immediately condemn those who have another view than we have.

The extraordinary session of the Dutch Adventist Church is now in the past. I sincerely hope that as a faith community we can find the grace to observe a truce in the current discussions and focus on the many other challenges that face the Adventist believers in the Netherlands.

 

 

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