23 May 2024

Flying or not, (un)blessing and indifference

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Newsletter May 2024
Musings, grumblings and possible some news

Saturday, April 27. The flight from Amsterdam to Belgrade was delayed by more than an hour, but the connecting flight to Montenegro would still be able to be made. A short sprint to the gate where the last passengers were boarding: yes, made it! Just scanning the boarding pass and through the gateway into the plane. Not so: computer says no, and I was sent to the transfer desk. Long story short: I wasn't allowed on the flight and the next one would be two days later. Of the four studies I was to give over the next three days at the bi-annual retreat of our workers in the Balkans, there would only be time left to do the last one. A Montenegrin living in the Netherlands who noticed my visible and verbal indignation offered to help. He was facing the same predicament. The only solution was to take a taxi. My new friend negotiated a price and an hour later we were on our way for the almost 11-hour drive from Belgrade to Budva. It turned out to be an interesting ride with the Eastern Orthodox taxi driver and my new Islamic friend, who invariably called me brother and believed it was the right thing to do to help a brother in need and regularly reminded me during the ride that "Jesus loves me" because I arrive in time to give my studies. Three men in a taxi who share an image, desire to be able to live as neighbours under God’s Shalom/Salam, regardless of differences in religion and worldview, and who just can't understand why people blow each other's brains out because of religion or geographical borders. Finally arrived an hour after midnight after a spectacular drive through the mountains of southern Serbia and Montenegro. By the way, Air-Serbia has fully compensated me for all the extra costs incurred.
Four studies on the so-called Sermon on the Mount as penned down by the evangelist Matthew (Chapters 5-7). Addressing questions such as "what does it mean when Jesus proclaims blessedness over nine human qualities specifically named by him?" Were they actually characteristics or is it about the (raw) realities with which his listeners identified? By the way, what are we talking about when we say we are blessed? The meaning of "blessing" has taken on a life of its own and in our Western part of the world is easily confused with prosperity and gadgets, which others do not possess. Blessing only takes on meaning in contrast with "unblessing".
Sunday, March 3. Woke up to a whatsapp message from youngest daughter Ellen that she had wrecked my car. At first I thought it was a practical joke but when the attached photo slowly but surely became sharper while downloading, I saw that it was indeed my car. Drama. I decided not to get angry because it could just as easily have happened to me. I was so happy with the car (from 2007 – so not really new or young) because everything just worked nicely. Ellen offers to buy me another similar car, but then she immediately runs out of savings. And she desperately needs those savings. She moved in with us with her three children. Her marriage is not lasting and in the coming weeks, agreements will have to be made about where she will live, custody, alimony and everything else that is involved in a divorce.

She now has a house in Spijkenisse (completely dilapidated – a gigantic pile of work to make it liveable and usable again) and there is a covenant. Martha and I are happy to have the space in our home for her and the children for as long as it takes. A few more weeks and the family can start a new chapter. Oh yes, we got the wrecked car back on its feet by buying the same type and colour of scrap car and replacing the “injured” parts. Because she really needs a car and still uses mine, I told her that she can keep the car.
Did I really say that? Now I don't have a car anymore and I have to look for a new old car.
Cars? Always a hassle.
Sunday, April 14. Arrived at Bayview Family Church in Toronto around 9:30 am. The relationship with this warm, welcoming congregation has existed for about 30 years and I have felt part of this "family" for years. Spoke on the question of how a follower of Jesus can be recognized. You then end up with the schism with the right confession on the one hand and the right action on the other. I think I understand from scripture that if a mouthful of spiritual ideals and ambitions does not translate into corresponding deeds and actions, it is better to shut up; You can recognize the tree by its fruit. That is an area of tension that I regularly struggle with in confrontation with my, at times, impossible, hopeless self.  The Sermon on the Mount is an effective mirror, representing a life that we all should aspire to.
Another "family" is that of the Church of Christ in Ungarra (117 souls), a town on the Eyre peninsula (twice the size of the Netherlands with only 60 thousand inhabitants) in South Australia. When I spoke there recently, I was asked to administer the bread and wine. I passed the bread around with the instruction to pass on the bread to the next person with the words "the body of Christ, given for you". That went well if it weren't for the fact that the small crackers were on two smooth plates and when passing them around, crackers regularly slid off the plate onto the floor. Hilarity all around. When all were served I took the plates and the remaining crackers slipped off the plate in front of my feet and I promptly stepped on it. Even more hilarity. The Lord's Supper turned out to be both a serious and relaxing event.
Back home from Australia, I suffered from flu-like symptoms, lack of motivation, concentration and indifference for weeks. The former are gone, but the latter three seem more unruly. I trust that it will be okay, but it is not really fun (not that "fun" is the touchstone, because then I would have fallen prey to the Western disease of affluence that seems to have elevated "fun" to the norm).
OM operates on the "faith mission" principle; the idea that God provides for all needs. This takes shape through a constituency of giving friends who rally behind the (missionary) workers, projects and what not. We have been living on this basis since 1987. I've always struggled with it and still do. It feels like a constant peddling of yourself. This group of supporters is constantly changing. Giving friends come and go.  Financial spending is being reviewed, and through relocation, social groups and engagements change. Currently, the monthly deficit is just under 500 euros and I need to do more peddling (sigh…).
Martha steadily paints and uses everything that can serve as a background as a basis. Dozens of leftover laminates (left over from the renovation of the two guest rooms in our house) have undergone her brush and color treatment.
We stared at the paneled ceiling. Not that we saw the panels, after all it was dark, but we are aware of the presence of the ceiling that dates from the 70s of the last century. So we lay there staring and musing about the fact that the bar is set high and that we have every reason to be disappointed in ourselves. What bar were we talking about?

The bar of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Our love for each other and others have a breaking point, joy depends on physical and environmental factors, peace is disturbed unintentionally and often unexpectedly. Patience? Don't get me started. Kindness is often situational and dependent on who is on the receiving end. On top of that, our state of mind is constantly in conversation with chemical processes in our brains where endorphins, serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine and about thirty other neurotransmitters control and affect the mood and countless bodily actions and processes. All it takes is one hitch to disrupt these delicate processes and you are no longer the person who was manifested a moment before.

Falling back on the grace of God, whose saving arms reach deeper than our greatest disappointments, is not an admission of weakness but the place where we reconnect with Life. And hope!


Jan den Ouden (also on behalf of Martha)

Email: jandenouden@om.org
Financial gifts will reach us through your national OM office. Please consider becoming a financial partner. Find your local office by typing om.org in your browser, or contact us for further instructions.
Jan en Martha den Ouden
West-Sidelinge 270
3042 CX  Rotterdam
Tel: 010-5115979 of  06-427.427.05

Email: jan@lifedirection.org 
Blog: Jandereiziger.blogspot.com/
Giften kun je (aftrekbaar) overmaken op NL13 RABO 0114 2329 38 van OM Nederland in Nijkerk. Vermeld: Fam. den Ouden.
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05 May 2021

Changing the church: How Luther and Erasmus would turn that corner (BB5)


People change. Generally slow. A discrepancy can develop between what one feels at home at and the inner transformation that most people undergo in their lives. That inner change is an inevitable consequence of growing up and getting older. The resulting inner major and minor conflicts demand a response in which an adjustment usually takes place, one that overcomes the distance and establishes new connections in heart and min; one is able to travel on albeit in a new and fresh realisation and definition of reality. However, this process does not stop and one can reach a point where possible bridging options are exhausted. Then a more radical action is needed to achieve a new normal. Both sides of a conflict have a certain degree of elongation and differences in thinking and practices can be reconciled to a certain extent.

Everything and everyone has a breaking point and when Billy arrived at that point where the differences proved irreconcilable, it was his choice to leave the church. His "problem" was not with God, the Bible, or the phenomenon called Church, but more with the institutionalized ideas and practices related to these and often seemed immovable.

At first, Billy was bitter and disillusioned and especially resented, blaming the church and the people in it. Having given himself time to think about his own place in the process - which was difficult enough because man seems to be inclined to point to external factors - he realized that it was not entirely fair to blame his environment for a process of change that took place mainly in his inner life.

Billie shared his acquired insights with me and asked what my thoughts were on this. This is what I had to offer to Billy:

Together with the personal development process that a person undergoes, everything about us is constantly evolving. It is therefore inevitable that we regularly recalibrate our position vis-à-vis all these external forces and reassess our position. An example from history: Martin Luther and Erasmus were contemporaries and both members of the same institution church. In that church too many things were outright wrong (in light of what they discovered and learned from their study of the Bible) and both men came to the conclusion that the system had to be overhauled, changed, or even obliterated. Luther opted for secession and played an important role in (only partially) shedding the tyrannical yoke of the Catholic Church. He left the church with big gestures and bold words. His part in the reformation is of world-changing order. The fact that this new movement soon institutionalized is a different story, but historically the transition from movement to institute turns out to be a tough reality.

Erasmus remained faithful to the church (though the church would question his faithfulness). He believed that change is best achieved with patience and through the written (and printed) word. In his days Erasmus was the most important, most well-known, and popular "influencer". In his "praise of folly" - a then unique, accessible and generally acceptable, ironic style - he denounces abuses in the church and society and managed to persuade many (to this day) to "recalibrate" one's own position vis-à-vis the world, power and the church (the two were pretty much synonymous in his days).  The church, of course, wasn't too happy with him. His contribution to the current worldview(s) reaches far and deep into the fibers of many cultures. 

What I am saying here is that it may be right to draw a line in the sand, as Luther did, with the result that a new institute was established that had to learn to co-exist with that other institution which, to this day goes hand in hand with ample bloodshed.

In my opinion, Erasmus's path is a sympathetic path and more effective in the long run and therefore recommended. In choosing that route, one sticks to the basics - that what connects and unites me with the other - and critically constructively calling out the noise in systems around us. The effect is not always immediate, but in the long run, this critical-constructive approach works from the depth of reality to its width.

Of course, there are irreconcilable breaking points that leaves a person only one choice and that is to walk away from the system. For me personally, that would be the central place Christ (and the Cross) takes in God’s big story. I know, it's just a few words and that there’s a world behind them. What worries me and what I want to watch out for is when noise starts to disrupt and obscure that central place of Christ. That is what tends to happen when the church as a movement of God becomes an institution of man. Therefore the Church must always be on the move.

This is the fifth and last blog in a series of five about Billy Bobsleigh leaving the church.

1. How Billy Bobsleigh got burned
2. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 1: God
3. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 2: The Bible
4. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 3: The church 
5. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 4: Billy

25 April 2021

The church playing balls (BB4)

The church

The local billiards club, of which Billy had been a member for years, had a problem. In Billy’s humble opinion, and most club members concurred. Every year since its inception near 1782, the problem has been on the agenda. Apparently, they failed to solve the problem. The balls weren't the problem. They had been around since the genesis of this indoor 'ball game on a table' and, for obvious reasons, couldn’t and shouldn’t be touched. The fact that different offshoots of the basic game had emerged overtime was not the problem either.

No, the problem was the survival of the club where aging and predictability were identified as central culprits. Of course, the board was held responsible. Sometimes, younger aspiring members checked out the club but often called it quits after a couple of nights and joined the local racketball club instead. Women were also allowed to participate there, you see, to name but one reason.

At the most recent members' meeting, some club members had filed a motion. The board should step down and make way for the younger guard who had to clean things up and innovate. Some of those younger members held a degree in innovation, so the future would be in good hands with them.  The predictability of the annual internal competition also had to be addressed as it seemed that always the same persons ended up with the grand victory.

At intermission, a club member had said softly spoken the word "boring" in his elbow and this was overheard by some of the members, resulting in a tense silence but was quickly washed away with another round of pints.

Arriving home that night, Billy did some deep thinking and it dawned on him that with the ball game on a table there is not that many alternative routes to take with  the basic stick (cue), green cloth (they'd  tried blue which remarkably caused a resurgence but that - both the cloth and the resurgence - had faded quickly), some balls and, of course, people.

No, if he was honest, and he was trying to be, it wasn't so much the game but his own role and place in the bigger story that he needed to look at. So, Billy concluded, I should not so much blame the club (although some of the recriminations and concerns are quite justified and should continue to on the agenda) but carefully look at what I can do to constructively keep the game alive and moving.

The parallel with the church, which he had now left, suddenly dawned on him, and Billy quietly wondered if he might not have pointed too much at the church in the process that led to him leaving the church,  and too little at himself. He gave himself seven days to think about it and possible come to some resolve and conclusions....

Of all the ways in which to engage in the enterprise of church, this has to be the most absurd – this haphazard collection of people who somehow get assembled into pews on Sundays, half-heartedly sing a few songs most of them don’t like, tune in and out of a sermon according to the state of their digestion and the preacher’s decibels, awkward in their commitments and jerky in their prayers. But the people in these pews are also people who suffer deeply and find God in their suffering. These are men and women who make love commitments, are faithful to them through trial and temptation, and bear fruits of righteousness, spirit-fruits that bless the people around them…

.. But these are mixed in with the others and are, more often than not, indistinguishable from them. I can find, biblically, no other form of church.  

Eugene Petersen, Under the unpredictable plant 23-4.

This is the fourth blog in a series of five about Billy Bobsleigh leaving the church.

1. How Billy Bobsleigh got burned
2. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 1: God
3. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 2: The Bible
4. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 3: The church 
5. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 4: Billy (next blog)

Images: Pixabay
Church: https://pixabay.com/nl/vectors/huis-icon-silhouet-kruis-304072/
Balls: https://pixabay.com/nl/vectors/ballen-cue-game-biljart-vrije-tijd-34909/
Table: https://pixabay.com/nl/vectors/tafel-biljart-zwembad-sport-game-311027/

18 April 2021

In real life conservative, rigid, and liberal Bible readers are pretty fluid in their application of it

The Bible

Billy had been struggling for a long while with the status and authority of the Bible. Himself prone and taking a liking to science, he’d observed that not few fellow believers seemed to oppose anything reeking of research and defended their often rigid attitude by stating that everything we can and want to know about anything can be found in the Bible. All else out there is either from the devil or at least debatable and should be mistrusted. In addition, it seemed to Billy that believers are quite good at finding texts that are promoted to their personal favorites, and/or texts that say what they want or prefer to hear. He couldn't make heads or tails of it.
I have yet to find out whether this helped Billy at all, but here's what I wrote to him:

Sola Scriptura vs. Fluidum Scriptura

When around 1520 the yoke of the Catholic Church was shed through the process of what we know as the Reformation, foundations for that reformed, protestant faith had to be articulated and established into a system. One of those foundations was "Sola Scriptura" (there are four other sola’s); the idea that the Bible is the only authority for faith and Christian faith practice; the Bible is complete, authoritative, and true.

In the first centuries A.D., scholars and church officials were trying to make up their minds about which book should or shouldn’t be part of what became known as the canon of the Bible. That discussion was concluded around the fifth century and the canon, or yardstick, was a fact. That canon was then tied together with a firm ribbon around this consolidated package and the text from 2 Timothy 3:16 had to be seen as the signature of God among the whole, and sealing the deal: "Every scripture is 'God-inspired' and is therefore useful for teaching, for rebutting errors, for the improvement of morals, and for the education of a righteous life..." (2 Timothy 3:16).

It was assumed that this canon was composed by God's hand and its content accurate to double digits after the comma. However, the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox saw a larger hand of God and included ten additional books in their canon. So, in fact, the canon was only semi-resolved unless one decides that the Catholics and Eastern-Orthodox blokes are all heretics and dead wrong.

Now the idea of Sola Scriptura is quite embedded in the Protestant bloodlines, but in practice Sola Scriptura often has to compete with traditions and the personal experience of faith. That’s called ‘Prima Scriptura’; traditions and experiences are authoritative as long as they Scripture proofed. In practice, that test turns out to be rather fluid. One example: Protestantism has made a significant contribution to developing, maintaining and even Scripture proofing the idea of (open) market forces where profit is the guiding principle and in which as a result the “have-nots” such as orphans, widows, and other marginal groups have to settle for a place under the market stall at the discretion of profit-hungry market stall owners (and their shareholders), the “haves”.

What the Bible has to say about inequality is cunningly massaged away and skillfully maneuvered towards the sewers. 'Scriptura Fluidum' would therefore be a more accurate summary of how the Bible is interpreted. Trying to make heads and tails of it requires a body but that body has been filtered out by the market theologians.

The essence of the Bible

What if there wasn't a Bible? Could there be a sense of God, even if that were nothing more than a realization, or assumption that there is "something more"? I assume for a moment that the answer to this question is 'yes'. Then we have to start shaping and describing that idea. Most people are somewhere in the continuum where on the one hand we find the "there is nothing" group on the one hand and on the other hand the group that provides you with “an accurate and detailed description of God” with its exclusive statements, claim, and even a willingness to give their lives for it and, of course, take the lives of others.

With the Bible, we have a collection of 66 books that together form the great story of God. A story that has a beginning and an end and in which Christ is the centerpiece. In that story, we read how, in order to live a flourishing life, we as human beings are to relate to God, each other, and the earth. However, man's ears are bent elsewhere, resulting in an ever-increasing alienation from God, the other, and the earth. This is a prominent theme throughout the Bible. The solution can also be found in that same Bible, but it seems that the price tag that comes with that solution is too dear to many. To stop "taking" seems too big of an ask.

This, in some very broad brushstrokes, is what the Bible Is about.

What it's essentially not

Disputes, discord, rifts, and exclusive group forming are almost always the results of approaching, interpreting, and applying the Bible for what it is not:

  • A scientific textbook (although it has crucial things to say about the origin of the planet, the cosmos, and man)
  • A book on history (although it contributes a lot to it and this contribution is massive).
  • A biology textbook (although it does contribute very valid ideas about biology).
  • A math book (there’s a bit of numerology in it, that’s undeniable).
  • A textbook on economics (although it makes a fundamental contribution to ideas about establishing a flourishing economy in which the well-being of all is leading).
  • A cookbook (although it does contribute to ideas about diets).
  • .....

When one elevates one of the many topics on which the Bible can constructively contribute to the conversation about the essence of things, but claims this as the only authoritative contribution, two things happen:

1. One will no longer be considered a serious interlocutor and will not be able to contribute to that conversation in a constructive way.

2. It dilutes the essential story of the Bible that provides a solution to the major human issues.

This relatively compressed and at times indiscriminate overview is what I sent Billy. Billy has a short attention span and I’m afraid this might be too much text for him. My suspicion is that it's going to raise even more questions and won’t bring heads and tails that much closer. The main thing is that we keep looking for the body.

I'm waiting for a response from Billy.

This is the third blog in a series of five about Billy Bobsleigh leaving the church.

1. How Billy Bobsleigh got burned
2. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 1: God
3. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 2: The Bible
4. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn3: The church (next blog)
5. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 4: Billy (next blog after the next...)

Photo: congerdesign  pixabay