Sunday, January 07, 2007

Getting Better All the Time

Have you visited my new website yet: It's a great site that keeps getting better and better. Just this weekend, we added a Pictures section that is especially cool, with all the latest (continually updated) images of our family, our ministry, and the city of Amsterdam...

Don't forget to make the switch to the new website! Go now (before you forget) and check your computer's web browser, to make sure that the new website is listed in your favorites (this blog is being phased out)... If you use an RSS aggregator to keep up with your blogs, why don't you just cruise on over to the website right now and subscribe using the handy syndication feature at the bottom of the right sidebar... And if you have a website or blog of your own, please be so kind as to direct your links (I love the publicity!) to my new website: (and remember, there's no better time to take care of it than right now -- before you forget!).

I hope you're not too annoyed with my repeated reminders for making the switch to my new website. But I know that such adjustments can take time (and if you're reading this announcement in this space, even after having seen the other two reminders, it seems that you may very well need some continued encouragement).

We'll see you at the new website (hopefully)...

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Road Trip...

Our family just got back yesterday from a road trip to Düsseldorf (Germany). Actually, I don’t know if you can technically call it a “road” trip because we took the train -- but you know what I mean…

[The remainder of this post can be read on my new website: Don't forget to adjust your Favorites, RSS Feeds, and Links so you can keep in touch!]

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year, New Blog

Gelukkig nieuwjaar! (Happy New Year)! To start off the new calendar year, I'm extremely excited to unveil a new website:

It's more than a blog (although it includes a blog and will, in effect, replace this more generic blog) -- it's a full-blown website. You can take a look for yourself, but the site currently includes an extra "About" section, a still-developing "Ministry" resource center, and an expansive "Recommended" section, offering recommendations for some of my favorite books, films, music, and websites. In the coming weeks, I (with much help from my good friend Will Lafferty) am also planning to add an extensive photo gallery and expand the resources offered from the website to include everything from teaching notes to Bible studies to stories...

Please add to your web browser's "Favorites" and your RSS aggregator. And please redirect your links to set up as my new blog (and so much more!).

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Progress Report - Number Umpteen

I fear that I may become boring at times, with my relatively repetitive updates about the seemingly snail-paced progress on renovation of our church's new ministry space at the Herengracht 88... But I sometimes feel that I don't have much else to talk about these days. Our church's relocation has been quite consuming -- not just on the practical level (i.e. number of hours in my week), but also on the physical level (I haven't really gotten to immerse myself in any good ol' fashioned physical labor since summer jobs during my early university days) and on the emotional level... It's hard to explain, but I feel like this project has a metaphysical dimension to it.

At any rate, we had a couple more "work days" at the Kelder this week.

We didn't get quite as many volunteers as I might have anticipated (or at least hoped for) in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day... But the people who did come by to help worked hard (like Avantia, pictured above), and we were able to take some significant steps forward. As you can see from the pictures, the two biggest rooms of are nearing completion. Ninety percent of the surface area in this area has been painted. Our furniture, appliances, and boxes have all been moved in, neatly stacked, and covered. We just have a bit of trimwork to finish up and some general touch-up work -- and then we'll be as done as possible... for the time being (the kitchen, hallway, and the two smaller rooms in the other half of the facility are still under construction by the contractors).

The Lounge area (pictured above) has become a bit of a personal project for me (although, let me be quick to point out there have been numerous other individuals who have also worked extremely hard on this space). In my original estimation of the renovation work required, I anticipated that this room would be a relatively "quick fix" (famous last words) in comparison to the other parts of the facility... However, we found ourselves unexpectedly spending hours and hours in scraping and sanding the ceilings... only to be followed by unexpected hours and hours in preparing the walls for painting... only to be followed by unexpected hours and hours of applying layers and layers of paint (some walls have now received no less than five layers of paint!).

But it's finally getting close to being finished (or at least so I assume).

There's been a lot of discussion about the choice in paint colors (for which I cannot take credit or criticism -- as I let other, more qualified, individuals make the decisions about aesthetics). Some fear that the shades of brown will be too dark and overwhelming -- creating a cave-like effect in a room with no natural lighting... But personally, I've come to really like the brown. It's earthy and strangely warm. It's reminiscent of the famous "brown cafes" celebrated for their gezelligheid in the surrounding Jordaan neighborhood of Amsterdam. The color seems to flatten out a lot of the imperfections in the walls, and it creates a nice resting place for the light. Especially once we get some furniture in there, and some artwork on the walls (it's intended to be a sort of art gallery, in addition to a lounge), I think it will be a very cozy space.

So that's the progress report from the Herengracht these days. Keep praying for us. I'll keep you informed of our progress (for better or worse)...

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Which Way to Waterloo

The Napoleonic allusion is a bit obvious -- perhaps even cliché -- but under the circumstances, I find it simply irresistible. A 170-cm (5'8") Frenchman trying to push my solid frame over the threshhold, nervously pushing buttons on his mobile phone and crying out: "Gyet out! Gyet out! Zis is my a-part-a-ment!" He did not care if it was as cold as the Russian tundra outside; he was determined to maintain his heading at all costs.

After a brief moment of resistence, I decided that it wasn't worth the struggle -- though I must confess that I momentarily considered how enjoyable it would be to manhandle such a thorn in my side. In the end, I chose to step deliberately and carefully out into the hallway. After all, I had just been trying to do a simple check-out -- a business formality, really. And if the diminuitive French tenant was going to handle things like this, then so be it.

The troublesome business relationship with this particular renter was symbolic of the greater struggle experienced by the non-profit organization for which I work, over the course of four years in trying to navigate the real estate market of central Amsterdam. Although the stichting had been set up to provide the legal framework for establishing a church in Amsterdam's city center, we also found ourselves enmeshed in the business world when the church ended up renting a space that happened to include a number of extra apartments intended to be used as short-term rental space for business clientele. It was a brilliant idea, really, to creatively generate income for the notoriously high start-up costs of a new ministry project... but unfortunately, the idea backfired on us. We quickly found ourselves in over our heads, under declining market conditions and general inexperience. And even now, as we're nearing the completion of our unentanglement from the situation -- which I can only hope and pray that we are -- nothing ends up coming easy.

In the matter of this particular check-out procedure, I had come at the tenant's request -- his urging, as a matter of fact. He didn't want to wait for our originally-scheduled check-out time; he wanted to depart for Paris immediately. So I obliged him... And the check-out was actually going relatively smoothly. The apartment was in decent shape. We were good to go...

Until the question of payment came up.

We were fully prepared to settle up with the moving costs, as had been (albeit reluctantly) agreed. But when I asked for verification of payment for his last three months of rent -- a routine request, really, given that the man was about to slip across the border and disappear into his native French society -- Monsieur Bonaparte threw a hissy-fit. His face turned the color of spoiled tomatoes, he paced dramatically while waving his arms in the air, and he just - kept - yelling. The cacophony was terrific: he was complaining to his friend en Francais, I was talking on the mobile phone to my colleauge in 't Nederlands, we were going back and forth with each other in English... And, well, the situation just kept escalating. If I do say so myself, I managed to stay incredibly cool, and calm, and collected while the angry Frenchman raged -- but my composure seemed to only fuel the tenant's rage. And I could see that we were rapidly approaching the threshhold scene, both literally and figuratively.

So under the hurried counsel of businessmen and lawyers, I walked away from the situation. Napoleon may be choosing to lay siege to the empty apartment -- and I can imagine that there may be more fireworks in the future. But it seems that our position is quite fortified: a veritable Moscow in January (or, if Biblical analogies are more your thing, you can think of it like Jehosaphat's Judah up against the Ammonites and Moabites, i.e. 2 Chronicles 20).

And even though the present situation presents some hassles and hindrances, I can't help but hope that Waterloo is just around the corner.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Christmas Love Story

Christmas is a season of love, and light, and magic… and well, so is this story. It’s a Christmas story from long ago—so long ago, in fact, that its precise date has escaped recollection. But rest assured: it’s only the day of the calendar that has been forgotten… because the rest of that day was imprinted on my consciousness like a footprint in a field of virgin snow.

It was, in fact, a snowy day—a winter day. Not like in the thick of winter—not harsh and dry and bitter. No, it was a day of new snow—soft and romantic, like cool white butterflies dancing. The gentle flakes were sparse and sporadic on the drive down to Columbus, and the two of us felt like we were in the opening credits to a romantic holiday film where something unforgettable happens.

Of course, as with any day consigned to the distant past, the memories of that day are vague and incomplete. I don’t remember parking the car, for instance, or stopping to fill up with gasoline at any point—though I’m sure we did… But I do remember walking through the zoo with her, gloved-hand-in-gloved-hand, two of the very few visitors to be taking in the subfreezing sights by the last hours of cool gray daylight preceding the more popular “Lights Before Christmas.” As we walked along the way, oblivious to the rest of the world, I remember stealing a moment behind the sea lion tank for a kiss… Ah, I remember the moment well. The kiss was sweet—like cinnamon—and long. Warming. It would not be decent of me to speak of it more than this… But it was a memorable kiss.

As darkness fell, we continued to wander through the zoo, which took on the appearance of the Land of Sugar Plum Fairies as the twinkling lights glowed from every snowy edge and orifice. We strolled past an open fire which was attracting the bowing adoration of many a frozen stranger. To our amazement, chestnuts actually roasted over this open fire—just like in the song. The experience seemed too classic to pass up, so we bought ourselves a bag: our first time eating roasted chestnuts… It turned out that the idea of the chestnuts turned out to be more appetizing than the chestnuts themselves… So that was likely also our last time eating roasted chestnuts. Still at least we could say that we did it together.

Shortly after the chestnut experience, the pace of the snowfall started to pick up. I guess you could say that it was becoming a snow storm—still a generally pleasant, romantic sort of snow storm, but a snow storm nonetheless. I still vividly remember the bombardment of thick, fat flakes—actually more like small snow balls more than flakes—being playfully tossed from the heavens. Since we had been out in the elements for several hours, it seemed especially appealing to hail one of the horse-drawn carriages to take a little ride, to enjoy the scenery from a different vantage point and to momentarily escape the pummeling snow storm. In the back of the black carriage, we huddled close as we listened to the clop-clop-clopping of the horses’ powerful hooves penetrating through the piling snow to the stone surface beneath—and then, as we rode, we heard another sound. A familiar sound, but strangely incongruous with the wintry setting. We listened again, more carefully, to verify what we had heard… and after a hushed moment’s pause, punctuated solely by the ticking equestrian cadence, we heard it again beyond the shadow of a doubt: thunder echoing through the gardens. The snow was familiar enough to us, born Midwesterners. The thunder, too, was a regular experience throughout decades of Ohio summers… But “thunder-snow”—it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Absolutely unforgettable, much like the rest of that day.

At the end of the evening, we found ourselves back on the road, driving home through the snow in a Ford Taurus the color of glüwein (I remember the car because it was my parents’ car, a special car). The windshields were wick-wick-wicking away watery snow, and we were enraptured in the moment, saying very little. Just listening to Christmas music. And holding hands… And falling deeper and deeper in love.

On that car ride home from the Columbus Zoo, in the confines of that Ford Taurus soaring through the snow-streaked night, I knew that I wanted to spend a great many more Christmases with the woman sitting beside me. I wanted to savor her cinnamon kisses, warm my hands in her tender touch, drink up the sights and sounds of Christmas together for years to come.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done ever since. The best part about this Christmas story is that it’s not over. We can’t just tack on some corny “And they lived happily ever after” line to finish out the account. The story of these two young lovers is still in the early chapters of its ongoing development. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Sensation of a Solstice

Ever since moving to Amsterdam -- 52 degrees and 22 minutes north of the Equator -- this day has been an important day on the calendar: the 21st of December... the Winter Solstice.

There's simply no getting around it. The natural phenomenon of the Earth's revolution around the sun has a visceral effect on an Amsterdammer. The darkness creeps in on the day, like a dark fox hunting its helpless prey, circling in on the sunrise and sunset each day from June to December. It's unnoticeable at first, just a few minutes here, a few minutes there... But as the apex of darkness draws ever closer, the sensation is attacking, strangling, overwhelming. These days, we must will ourselves to get out of bed at the "usual time" -- even though the sun will do no such thing until hours later -- and again we are forced to don safety lights in the middle of the afternoon, as we ride our bicycles to complete a day which the sun is content to finish hours before us.

Ironically, when the winter solstice arrives -- the shortest day of the year -- it is actually a time for celebration. Not celebration because the day is so temporary, so weak, so dim... but celebration because it's the beginning of the end. From this day forward, each day becomes a little bit longer, a little bit lighter. And such a realization is a subtly significant source of hope.

To be honest, I can understand why the pagan religions of northern Europe -- the Norse, the Celts, the Druids, and whatnot -- celebrated the winter solstice as a holy day. And even though Christians are sometimes criticized for adopting such pagan holy days for their own holy days, I can understand why early Christians decided to appoint Christmas to fall roughly around the same time as the winter solstice. The parallels are beautiful.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of hopes for a coming Messiah in the following way: "The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine." Zechariah the priest, just a generation before Jesus echoed Isaiah's prophecy, saying, "Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace." The first chapter of John metaphorically speaks of Jesus as "the light (that) shines in the darkness." And Jesus himself later spoke of himself as "the light of the world..."

Anticipation and renewal and hope -- such natural responses to the beginning of darkness's end at this time of the year -- found their fulfillment in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Light of the world.

So... Happy Solstice. And Merry Christmas.