A transcript of Jeff Fountain’s final keynote at the EEA General Assembly 2020
We started off […] [the General Assembly 2020] looking at Europe and we suggested different ways we could look at Europe. But as Connie reminded us […] [in her bible study on day 3], looking and seeing are not the same thing. As the spies entered the promised land [in Numbers 13:21], it wasn´t that they saw different things; they saw things differently. And as we all know the familiar text from john 519, Jesus said, “The Son of Man does only what he sees the Father doing”. So, we started off talking about looking and I want us to finish off talking about seeing.
We know the story, too, of Elijah and Gehazi, his servant. On several occasions there was a need for the servant to see things that he could not see. And [as Elijah prayed in 2 Kings 6:17,] “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see!”, the Lord opened the servant´s eyes to see the chariots, the hosts of heaven. Later on, Elijah sent Gehazi off to look for the cloud and he had to do so seven times before he began to see God’s hand at work. And I think this is a time where we need to ask ourselves, are we seeing God at work in Europe?Are we seeing what he is up to?
You may be familiar with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a Catholic Jesuit priest and he wrote a poem saying, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” During this Corona crisis time, when we were all in lockdown, my wife and I began to take early morning walks at seven o’clock, through the empty streets of Amsterdam. We called them our “sanity strolls”. And on one of these walks, I just became so overwhelmed with things that I was seeing that I looked at many times, but in a new way. Suddenly the flowers, the beauty of the flowers and the signs of transcendence that the flowers represented, so spoke to me. In fact, I sat down and wrote a weekly blog post for my blog “Weekly Word” about just recognizing that all these flowers are signs to us of God’s presence and God’s creativity. In this thin sliver of atmosphere that covers our globe is the only place in the whole cosmos where these fantastic, amazing, awe-inspiring evidence of God exist. For our sake! When my wife asked me, “What are you writing about?”, I literally burst out into tears. I was so moved with a kind of epiphany about seeing God’s presence and transcendence in new ways! This is a season where we can begin to see things differently. Can we see God at work in Europe today?
I want to give two illustrations. […] We’re all familiar with this painting by Vincent van Gogh – “Cafe Terrace at Night”. Art critics have written about this for 100 years, but only in the last few years have they begun to realize something; it is all about Jesus. The waiter figure is actually Jesus with a cross behind him. The figure disappearing out to the left of the picture is Judas, the other figures are the 11 remaining disciples sitting around and there are possibly two angels in different colors at the back. The menacing carriage that is coming is the approaching hour when the soldiers would come to arrest Jesus. […] We have not seen this before! Do we see Jesus? Do we see God at work in Europe today, even outside the church? Of course, it should not be so unusual for us because in the Old Testament we have books like Esther, where the name of God is not even mentioned; the church isn’t involved. And yet it is a story about God at work behind the scenes.
Now, some of you are familiar with the name of Hans Rosling and his book “Factfulness”. I want to invite you to watch this four-minute video from the BBC. Hans Rosling was not a believer. He is a humanist, but he draws very much from a Christian background in all its presuppositions and what he is doing in this particular video. […][In the video, Hans Rosling shows the development of 200 countries over the last 200 years; with a clear trend towards wealth and health for all countries.]. He offers a perspective that most of us do not have; he actually talks to NATO chiefs, to presidents, to UN experts – all sorts of academics. And again, and again, and again he says, they have got the wrong understanding about this world; we have got such a gloom and doom perspective. I was really challenged by what he had to say, because it seems to me that what we are talking about here is God’s “Common grace”.
Abraham Kuyper used to live in the very street that I am talking to you from right now; he would have walked past our building here. He became prime minister of Holland; he was an educationist and a politician; he was a theologian; he was in education as he started the Free University here in Amsterdam; and he introduced a concept of “Common grace”, that is God at work behind the scenes, based on the covenant God made to Noah that he would not ever allow sin to get so out of hand as to destroy the world and humanity, at least until the divine purposes had been fulfilled. Now we need to learn to see God still at work in Europe, outside of our own circles perhaps, behind the scenes, working out his purposes. He is far more concerned to do that than we are for him to do it, in fact. This requires a new way of seeing and recognizing that what Hans Rosling has been pointing out to us as an unbeliever is actually something of what God has been doing […] Can this increase of wealth and health in some way be seen as a fulfillment of the Lord’s prayer that we pray for God’s will to be done here in Europe here on Earth, as it is in heaven? Is that part of God’s will?
Now, the problem is that we tend to be very influenced by news services that tend to the “bad”. We never heard about Mr. Smith, who has been faithful to his wife for 40 years in the newspaper. You only hear about the scandals and so forth. Furthermore, we as Evangelicals also tend to the “local”. A Catholic historian once said, “Catholics see the woods, Protestants see the trees.” What he meant by that was that after the Reformation, Protestants focused on their own nations because they had the Church of England, the Dutch Reformed Church, and state churches in other countries, and we lost the bigger picture. As Evangelicals we have then often broke out into free churches. Our whole focus was on the “local” and this is part of the blindness that we have that prevents us from seeing God at work.We have not been always seeing the bigger picture.
Over these days [at the General Assembly 2020], we have been hearing marvelous stories of God at work. We must share these stories because the media is not going to share them. Thank God for initiatives like the Evangelical Focus; the beginning to help us hear what’s happening in different places. We need to expand that in so many ways, because we need to be telling our people that God has not forgotten Europe.God is at work in Europe and it is always His will for his will to be done in Europe. We know the stories of wheat and the tares. So often the news is telling us about the “tares”, but we forget about the “wheat”, the things that God is doing. We could look at the 20th century saying, “Oh, that was the worst century in history! Two world wars, a Cold War, the atom bomb and names like Hitler, Pol Pot, Lenin, and Stalin. In short, it was a terrible century.”, but it was the best century ever in terms of the work of the Holy Spirit! It began with revivals; the biggest revivals in history took place in the 20th century. More people came into the kingdom of God in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries. You see, we need to see what God is up to not just look but see what God is doing in this world. We happen to be stuck with a kind of a “Euro tunnel” vision at the moment; we see things only from a European perspective. But God is dynamically at work in other parts of the world. We are not aware of the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa, for example, where, once we Westerners have got out of the way, it has doubled over the last 20 or 30 years from 300 to 600 million Christians. It does not come on to our horizon. Let us recognize that God is at work in our world and he has not forgotten Europe either!
We have been hearing all sorts of stories [at the General Assembly]. Frank shared with us that the EEA is actually broader, deeper, and more connected than ever. I think my first EEA General Assembly was 1991 in Prague, and I was with involved with Stuart McAllister in this whole fresh development, a broadening of the of the vision. We have heard from Nick and from Richard and Maria on ways to be authentically engaged with society listening and learning. This is a different mentality that we haven’t always had without Evangelical minority complex. Leanne and Julia reminded us of the voice for justice and freedom that Evangelicals are beginning to discover again. On the first day [of the General Assembly], I mentioned a book called “A Vast Minority” by Stuart Murray. Now, we have been hearing minority reports from different countries. Manuel was just talking about a minority as well. Let us remember, God has always worked through faithful minorities! That is why Romkje and I take people each summer for the last 15 years […] on our heritage tour through Europe to show how Europe has been shaped through faithful minorities. When we realize that, we realize that God can do it again. This is the way he is always worked. All through the Scripture; we see again and again faithful minorities, whether it be the people of Israel as a faithful minority, or whether it just be 12 disciples left with Jesus, and so on. We don’t have to have a minority complex; we need to have a creative minority complex.
[In his book,] Stuart Murray talks about us being exiled in post Christendom Europe, called to seek the welfare of the city. Samuel Lee [has been awarded the title “Theologian of the Fatherland” here in the Netherlands (“Theologian of the Netherlands”) in 2019] and has a Middle Eastern background. He says, “Christianity is not shrinking. It’s just changing its font.” Let us see things differently, and, what Murray challenges us, become a creative, prophetic, and hopeful minority!Let us recognize that the biblical future of the church is multicultural. And despite all the anarchistic elements involved in the in the current anti-racist process taking place, let us recognize what God is doing through this. There is a general resonance, a realization that something needs to change, and we need to start first examining our own hearts on this. Do we have a racist, anti-ethnic bias? This has been typical of the church throughout history, but we need to remind our congregations that our future is multicultural; read Revelations 7:9.
This COVID crisis is a window of opportunity for us, and we need to pray, “Lord, open our eyes!”. Richard just mentioned Jonathan Sacks, who is one of my favorite writers as well. He is drawing from the Old Testament biblical perspectives, and I would recommend this book “Morality – Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times” on how to move from an “I-Society” to a “We-Society”. It is an excellent reading for us in these times! This [season] has been a sabbatical to reevaluate priorities, lifestyles, the meaning of life, the meaning of “church”, family, work patterns, relationship, creation care, travel habits, vacations, and economic challenges. What is going to be the result of all the unemployment the social consequences of that? How will this change our mission priorities? So, let us not waste this crisis! These are some of the things that we have been hearing, and we have been privileged to be able to connect in this way [at this conference] from all across Europe. Let us recognize the responsibility we have as “nodal people”; that is, if you look at a net, you have all the knots joining all the little pieces of rope. That is us, and it’s our responsibility to channel what we’ve been hearing, the insights that we’ve had, now back into the “local”. Give it local traction, and go with this prayer, “Open our eyes, Lord, so that we may see you at work in Europe today”. Thank you very much.