Wednesday, August 31, 2005


[Note to English-speaking readers: This is my own translation of my last post ("misverstand"). I'd figure I'd clue you in on the story because it's a pretty amusing one -- but I think I was somehow morally obligated to post it in Dutch first, as a kind of penance. Read on to see what I mean... Nederlanders: Zie beneden ("misverstand") voor het oorspronkelijke verhaaltje in 't Nederlands]

Well, um... OK. Perhaps I was a little bit defensive -- but at least in the end, the experience was an entertaining lesson in cultural and linguistic misunderstanding...

Our family was hosting a group of eight people for dinner, as a part of our church's HomeGroup50 (see my earlier post from August 22 for a little explanation of this concept). And without even thinking about it, we fell into Dutch as our language for the evening -- which I actually considered to be a positive development and a great opportunity for Marci and me to practice our Dutch... But, of course I made a lot of linguistic mistakes throughout the evening (as I most likely did in the last post which I tried to write in Dutch!). A misused word here, a poorly-constructed sentence there... You know, normal stuff for any foreigner. Nevertheless, it can be very frustrating for a person such as myself -- who typically prides himself on the ability to effectively articulate his thoughts in his first language (English). And after a little while, I started to feel, well, kind of embarassed and self-conscious.

So after dinner, I proposed that we share a little bit of discussion over a passage from the Bible (Acts 2:42-47) before moving on to enjoy our dessert -- or, "nagerecht" as it's said in Dutch. And while I went to grab my Bible, someone in the group made an off-the-cuff remark about our dessert -- saying something like "I hope that it's not so fluid (vloeibaar) by now" (because it was a warm day and someone had brought ice cream)... However, I didn't hear "fluid" (vloeibaar), but rather "fluent" (vloeiend) , and since I hadn't picked up on the fact that our dessert was the subject of the comment -- I jumped to the conclusion that I was beign mocked for my Dutch deficiencies! So I ask (pretty defensively): "Well then, what should I say?!?" as I assumed that I'd mistakenly used the wrong word for dessert (nagerecht). "Would you prefer that I call it a toestje?!?"

Well at this moment, to my great chagrin, everyone in the room really started to laugh -- because there is no such word in the Dutch language as "toestje." It was clear to everyone that I intended to use another Dutch word for an after-dinner treat, "toetje," (with no "s" in the middle), but in the midst of my defensiveness I actually fell victim to the very presumption that had caused my self-conscious outburst! Everyone laughed, and discussion ensued regarding the best Dutch translation of the word "dessert" -- of course, you could say "toetje," (but not "toestje!")... The French loan-word "dessert" (pronounced like the French "day-sayrt") could also work... And then someone brightened, saying that actually a really good Dutch word to use in such a situation would be (you guessed it) "nagerecht." I, of course, protested: "But that's the word I used in the first place!"

And finally we realized the misunderstanding that had taken place -- to my great embarassment -- and we were all able to laugh together. But not before we learned an important lesson: "Be careful! Because it's often the little things that can create the biggest misunderstandings." And "You should never take life too seriously."

What a stupid American I can be at times! But at least we can laugh about it now...

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Tja... Misschien was ik een beetje defensief -- maar de ervaring was uiteindelijk een grappige les in culturele en taalkundige misverstand...

Wij hadden een groepje van acht mensen om dinner samen te eten, als een deel van HomeGroup50 (zie vroeger post van 22 augustus voor een korte beschrijving van dit concept). 't Nederlands werd onze taal voor de avond -- en ik vond dit eigenlijk een goede ontwikkeling en heel goede oefening voor mij en Marci... Maar natuurlijk maakte ik veel fouten door de avond (en ook waarschijnlijk in deze post!). Een verkeerde woord hier, een slecht-constructueerde zin daar... 't is maar gewoon voor een buitenlander. Desondanks is het wel vervelend voor een mens (of, moet ik "persoon" zeggen?) zoals mij -- wie gewoon goed kunnen articuleren in mijn moedertaal ('t Engels). En na een tijdje begon ik wel verlegen, of bewust, te worden.

Na onze dinner, voorstelde ik een paar vragen te stellen over een deel van de Bijbel (Handelingen 2:42-47), voor we onze nagerecht zouden genieten. En terwijl ik ging om mijn Bijbel te halen, maakte iemand een kleine opmerking over onze dessert -- iets zoals, "ik hoop dat het niet zo vloeibaar is" (omdat het een warme dag was en omdat iemand heeft roomijs gebracht)... Maar ik hoorde niet "vloeibaar," maar "vloeiend" in plaats daarvan, en ik hoorde niet dat het over onze nagerecht ging -- dus dacht ik dat de groep lachten me uit over mijn Nederlands! Dus vroeg ik (heel defensief): "Nou, wat moet ik dan zeggen?!?" (ik dacht dat ik het verkeerde woord voor nagerecht had gebruikt). "Noemen jullie het liever een toestje?!?"

Natuurlijk, op dit moment, begon iedereen echt te lachen -- omdat er geen woord zoals "toestje" is. Duidelijk, bedoelde ik "toetje," maar ik had nu echt het verkeerde woord gebruikt! Iedereen lachten, en er was veel discussie over de juiste woorden voor het Engelse woord "dessert" -- toetje, dessert... en (natuurlijk) nagerecht. Dan zei ik "Maar dit was precies het woord dat ik eerst gebruikte!"

En dan ontdekten wij het misverstaand -- zo in verlegenheid was ik gebracht -- en wij allen konden samen lachen. Maar niet voor we een belangrijke les hadden geleert: "Wees voorzichtig! Een paar lettertjes kunnen een grote impact hebben!" en "Je kunt niet leven te serieus nemen."

Wat een stom Amerikan kan ik zijn! Ten minst kunnen we nu het grapje genieten...

Sunday, August 28, 2005

new beginnings

What do the following three items share in common: (1) a cup of coffee, (2) a cold-watered suburban lake, and (3) wine and cheese in the Sarphatipark?

I suppose it's pretty obvious to everyone, so I almost feel silly asking the question as it was some kind of brain teaser -- but yes, of course, the answer is that all of these three items represent new beginnings. And why wouldn't they? Nothing says "new beginnings" like a cup of piping hot java, a large body of water on the city outreaches, and a classic European picnic spread... Right? Seriously, though... This weekend has been an incredible experience of new beginnings in unexpected forms.

It started off with Elliot and I setting out for a walk in the beautiful Saturday morning sunshine. Just me, my son, the Reader's Digest, and The Story of Chicken Little. We meandered down the Middenweg until we reached our destination: the Coffee Company -- one of the few places in Amsterdam where you can get a good ol' American mixed coffee drink. And after ordering my Bambino Marz (Starbucks' Caramel Macchiato is a good frame of reference, if you really want to get the gist), along with one blueberry muffin, Elliot and I found our way to the leather lounge chairs to sit a spell. I enjoyed sips of my coffee while Elliot silently mowed the majority of the muffin. We simply enjoyed the moment together, silently looking at our reading material and pleasuring our taste buds. And it was in that moment that I realized how my relationship with my son was standing at a threshhold. I don't believe we had ever really shared such an moment -- just soaking up the silence together -- and even though it only lasted five minutes or so, the experience impressed upon me how much my boy is growing up. I don't know... Perhaps I'm making a mountain out of a molehill -- and perhaps celebrating solitude side-by-side is a poor excuse for companionship. However, I couldn't help but feel a sense of new beginnings in my relationship with Elliot. New potentials, new possibilities, new joys, and new adventures.

Later that afternoon, I set out on my bicycle for the southwest extremities of Amsterdam -- wearing a swimsuit under my jeans and feeling excited for our church's fourth public baptism. It's a forty-minute bike ride from my home in Oost to the Nieuwe Meer in Nieuwe Sloten. But the weather was fair and the music in my headphones kept the ride interesting. And by the time I rounded the Spijtellantje and turned onto the Jaagpad, following the contours of the lake, my soul was filled with exhileration and freedom. The city's cobbled streets and brick buildings faded into grasses and trees, the sunlight danced with the boats out on the water, and I was bubbling with a sense of celebration for the young lives that have been changed and reborn in Jesus, symbolized and proclaimed through baptism. As the crowd of friends and supporters looked on, an Austrian named Thomas, a Swiss woman named Daniella, and a young man from Holland named Daniel shared their stories of faith and obedience to God. Then we waded across the slippery stones into the waist-deep water, and we baptized each one of them, individually, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Their heads went under the cold clear waters of the Nieuwe Meer (the New Lake), and they rose up again in dramatic sybolism of New Life and New Hope. As we finished in song and prayer for these three young believers, I couldn't help but feel a sense of new beginnings of God's stirrings in Europe. New potentials, new possibilities, new joys, and new adventures.

Finally, as the shadows lengthened and the light flattened in the evening cloud cover, our family pedaled the short distance from our home to De Pijp to join up with a group of our friends in the Sarphatipark, celebrating Bret, Jayla, and Asher's last Saturday in Amsterdam. A kind of family reunion in reverse, we shared Barolo, Old Gouda, and conversation as a means of saying good-bye to our dear brother and sister. And although it's certainly sad to part ways with the Poppletons, I couldn't help but feel a sense of new beginnings for both their lives and ours. New potentials, new possibilities, new joys, and new adventures.

It seems to me that new beginnings are not always easy. In fact, the road is frought with peril and uncertainty. A new beginning often neccesitates the death of an old way of being, living, or doing. But new beginnings can also be so beautiful. And so alive. And so free.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Tony and the Chocolate Factory

Am I a pawn? A victim? A cog in the machinery of 21st Century society? Or am I a magnate? An oppressor? The engine that turns the wheels of the world's systems?

These are interesting themes explored in a two-part series of documentaries by Dutch journalist Teun van de Keuken, titled "Tony and the Chocolate Factory." These documentaries are very well-done, satirically entertaining, and highly compelling; I would definitely recommend that you click on the link to see the full version of both documentaries on the internet (a large amount of the films is narrated in English, although it is helpful to know Dutch and/or French for parts of the documentaries).

As both the producer and star of these documentaries, Teun van de Keuken has an interesting goal: to be prosecuted and convicted as an accessory to child slavery -- an offense punishable by Dutch law with up to four years in prison. And as for the precise nature of his involvement in this string of vicious child exploitation? Purchasing and consuming a bar of chocolate.

As he uncovers in the films, it is virtually impossible to eat a single bite of chocolate in our world today that could be guaranteed as "slave-free" -- in fact, it's practically a statistical certainty that any chocolate bought or sold in your neighborhood supermarket or convenience store is at least partially a product of child slavery. It sounds dramatic, but it makes sense if you work it out (as the documentaries do). Approximately 60 percent of the world's cocoa is produced in Côte d'Ivoire (a.k.a. the Ivory Coast of Africa); in fact, every major supplier, manufacturer, and distributor of cocoa and cocoa products uses Côte d'Ivoire cocoa. Thus, when the United Nations estimates that 15-20 percent of the cocoa plantations in Côte d'Ivoire use slave labor -- approximately 200,000 people (including a high ratio of boys between the ages of 12 and 18) -- it seems hard to avoid the fact that America's $13 million dollars per year of chocolate consumption is, more or less, supporting child slavery.

But what am I supposed to do with this information? Should I never eat chocolate again? And what about the clothes I wear -- should I start wearing animal skins and weaving my own fabrics from long grasses? What about the oil that's used for fuel in the city busses I ride? Should I form a commune in the mountains, where we can provide all our own goods and services and never have to deal with the evils of 21st Century society? I don't think this is neccessarily what Teun van de Keuken is advocating -- but how do you draw those lines? What are my roles and responsibilities as an individual? As a follower of Jesus? And what can I really do to fight the powerful forces of economics and politics?

Answers are not easy to come by (as you see in "Tony and the Chocolate Factory"). But at least the questions are worth asking.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

What's the deal with people?

The sign on the window (against which all of the bicycles are leaning) reads, "Geen Fietsen Plaatsen A.U.B." ("No Bicycle Parking Please"). Funny. And perhaps tragically illuminating...

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

How beautiful are the feet of Dr. Haggebeuk...

Today got off to a bad start -- at 12:09 in the morning, in fact... Yeah, it was a rough start to a difficult day. Shortly after midnight, Elliot awoke with an urgent need for the first of what was to be six trips to the toilet during the course of the night. Some nasty virus had wrested control of his little gastro-intestinal tract, and he developed a severe case of diarrhea that kept him and us uncomfortable throughtout the wee hours of the morning. And, well, it's tough for a day to recover after having been preceded by a night like that.

Today also happened to be the day that we were scheduled to talk with the neurologist -- though not until the very end of the business day, unfortunately. Thus, we were forced to go through the motions of our daily routines cloaked with the nagging question in the back of our minds as to just how deep the tumor infiltrated our baby girl's skull cavity... Not exactly the classic recipe for a fun day.

So Elliot camped out on the living room couch (excepting trips to the toilet) -- looking and feeling pitifully -- while Marci and I longingly orbited the telephone... well, looking and feeling pitifully. It had become one of those days where it could be so easy to despise one's own existence. Things seemed to just keep getting worse. Olivia routinely rejected just about every food that we put in front of her throughout the day. A massive bill showed up in the daily mail. The computer was showing signs of having caught Elliot's virus... By dinner time, the tensions in our home had become excruciating. Elliot was complaining that his tummy hurt and that his video had ended. Olivia still wasn't eating. And worst of all, the neurologist was an hour and a half late for the appointed and much-anticipated calling time.

Fortunately, we summitted and began our descent almost instantaneously -- when the telephone rang, and Marci's tone immediately indicated good news from Dr. Haggebeuk. I glanced over her shoulder as she jotted notes: "EEG - normal. MRI / blood vessels - brain is normal." And our family almost palpably breathed a collective sigh of relief for the youngest member of our clan. The connections inside the skull (that had been indicated by the first ultrasound) proved to be a single vein, not even feeding into one of the main cranial blood vessels. Dr. Haggebeuk went further to say that she had no reason to believe the neurological situation would affect or alter treatment of the hemangioma -- and that as far as she was concerned, Olivia's case was closed for her and no further neurological investigations were necessary. We could follow up as planned with Dr. Kuiper -- all of the necessary pre-surgical examinations completed (even earlier than could typically be anticipated)...

And this was very, very good news. Day-changing kind of news.

It just so happened that Elliot started to feel better after suppertime. He was finally able to keep some food down, and we actually caught him enjoying himself with his toys in the living room. Olivia decided to eat some of her spinach. Tech support finally came through with a solution for our computer problems. And, well, Marci and I ended up feeling a lot better, too.

I'd be foolish to say that a good couple of hours in the evening turned everything around into a "good day," or that everything is going to be perfect from here on out. But it's good to feel good, at the end of a long, bad day. And that's worth something.

Monday, August 22, 2005


For the last two Sundays in August, Zolder50 has organized some special activities to feature the church’s home groups. We believe that these small spiritual "families" of anywhere from 5 to 25 individuals are the primary foundation for our neighborhood church. Therefore, these two weeks were designed to create opportunities for more people to experience our home groups -- and understand how true community can be lived out, with people growing spiritually, growing relationally, and uniting to serve others.

So yesterday evening, after the entire church had been assembled and welcomed, Zolder50 clustered into its five existing home groups, and people who had never been previously involved in a home group were given a few criteria to help choose one to join for the evening. We paused momentarily for introductions, to make sure everyone in the group knew one another. Then each home group was given a mission: een speurtocht (a scavenger hunt).

Armed with just a few simple tools (a digital camera, a gluestick, and some papers defining the rules for the adventure and providing instructions for how to find our next clue) we set out, together as a group: one American, one Belgian, one South African, and three Nederlanders (and we eventually had the good fortune to join up with a Moroccan along the way). We didn't always feel 100 percent certain of the direction we were heading, but usually there was at least one of us in the group -- and not always the same individual -- who knew just enough to get us to our next clue (for example, if it weren't for Marco, I don't know how we would have found the tiny statuette of the man with the saw in the trees along the Singelgracht). We had to work together as a team (counting the number of iguanas on the Leidseplein), and we needed reinforcements along the way (I don't think we could've successfully photographed a three-level pyramid if we hadn't found Mourad somewhere around the Derde Helmerstraat). We had to work through misunderstandings (trying to understand Daniel's charades in front of the Burger King). We even washed each others' feet at one point (literally -- in the fountain on the Max Euweplein!). It was just following one orange marker after another, continuing in faith with just enough information to make it to the next clue. And along the way, we laughed and learned together.

In the end, I'm proud to say that our home group won. Through working together -- discovering the good (pink flowers and a photo of Anne), bad, and ugly (piles of street trash) of Amsterdam as a team -- we won the race back to home base, and then stopped to collect and examine the representative piece of art that had taken shape along the way (our yellow paper collage). As a result of our faithful pursuit of the adventure, we came away with the prize (the official "Zolder Cup") -- something to be enjoyed both individually and collectively.

Does anyone else see the beauty of the spiritual metaphor in this?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sail and Strike

A spectacular event has captured the attention of Amsterdam this week. This nautical festival, called "Sail 2005," only happens every five years. Tall-mast sailing ships and massive naval vessels from all corners of the globe parade in from the North Sea and fill the IJ harbor, just north of Amsterdam's Centraal Station. The typically-lonely docks and quays are swarmed with curious visitors, a constant stream of free concerts entertains the public, and fireworks pop and dazzle down by the waterfront every evening. Something like 2.5 million visitors celebrated the event in 2000, and early estimates were for at least that many at this year's event.

Coincidentally, this week also happens to be the week that the city's garbage workers and street cleaners went on strike. Strategically timed for seven days in late summer and coinciding with Sail 2005 as well as another beloved local festival (the Grachtenfestival), trash receptacles have been overflowing for days now, and litter drifts through the city streets like tumbleweed in an old western film. The city was requesting for residents to keep their trash inside or on their balconies -- but honestly, how could they really expect individuals to do that especially with alley cats and vermin threatening to make a terrible mess that would personally have to be cleaned up by each resident? So of course, the trash piles up on the street corners, and things are smelling kind of bad these days ("Daddy, let's talk about stinky")...

The sanitation workers are all supposed to go back to work tomorrow, but their statement has definitely been made...

So much for the city trying to put its best foot forward for the millions of visiting eyes. Isn't that how it always seems to work?

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Darndest Things

The family is sitting together to enjoy breakfast together -- talking about plans for the day and for one of the last weekends of the summer -- when Elliot, our three-and-a-half year old, suddenly introduces a profound new topic for discussion: "Daddy, let's talk about stinky... Because I don't know what stinky is."

In a moment such as this, we have to smile (although we try to do it discreetly). And even though we know full well that Elliot has a working knowledge of the adjective "stinky," we momentarily indulge him this conversation... Because the curiosity, wisdom, and insight of a three-and-a-half year old boy is a rich and delicious cream for the sometimes bland and predictable menu of life.

Sometimes, it's small things. Slight mispronunciations -- like "hostipal" (for "hospital") or "amimals" (for "animals") -- or word usage, i.e. substituting the word "macaroni" for "pepperoni" (as in, "My favorite kind of pizza is macaroni")... But many times, the words of Elliot the Wise are true proverbs, as though spoken by Solomon or Confucius. They've entered our family vernacular, much in the same way we quote verses from the Bible, or clichés from "Poor Richard's Almanac," or film and pop-culture quotes. Further examples of such "Elliotisms" include:

"Sometimes Spidermans forget to watch out for babies." (spoken on the occasion of Elliot, a.k.a. Spiderman, falling into his baby sister after leaping from the TV table, a.k.a. the tall building)

"Sometimes, Dad, little kids need help from their parents to eat their peaches." (instructively spoken on the occasion of Elliot asking for help with his food and Dad responding by suggesting that he's more than capable of feeding himself)

"Is Oma smiling at Opa because he looks funny with a moustache?" (spoken on the occasion of seeing a picture from our wedding album of Elliot's grandfather with a moustache where his grandmother is looking kind of funny at her husband)

Of course, Elliot has much to learn in this world -- ways to grow "more mature" and wise to the "ways of this world." But I wonder if we can learn just as much from them and their fresh perspective at our society. Children offer such profound and hilarious insights into our world, because they have a keen and prolonged exposure to our culture -- yet they're always learning, and it's socially acceptable for them to make mistakes.

Maybe these kinds of things are only funny for parents. Maybe others tire of hearing about my children, including such Elliotisms. But for my part, I plan to keep enjoying and learning from Elliot the Wise.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


I despise my powerlessness. My weakness. My ineptitude. Anytime I cannot or am not permitted to help, to control, to contribute, to lead, to do something... I hate my powerlessness. It is a tortuous disease eroding my sanity, my self-respect, and my soul.

Scarcely can a man feel more powerless, more weak, and more inept than when he's trapped at the mercy of the medical system, in a foreign country, dealing with his child's irregular vascualar condition, realizing that this baby girl is slipping into a medically-administered semi-comatose state before, about to be blasted with magnetic radiation in an attempt to see what might or might not be behind her skull... and there's very little that he can do about it.

Truth be told, I was downstairs when it happened. Trying to get an accurate number for Olivia's weight from the files down at the Kinderpolikliniek. We didn't have a number off the top of our heads -- and we certainly didn't want to guess when powerful sedatives were involved. But of course, I was a pawn in this game on this day. And no amount of kindness from the receptionists and nursing staff could change the fact that they didn't have Olivia's files. The files were upstairs -- of course -- in Radiologie... the same place where the ignorant nurse had asked and then shrugged off the lack of a specific weight without even glancing at the charts... and the same place my wife stood crying as our baby choked back the fumes from the gas mask and passively absorbed parting kisses before being wheeled into the lead-plated chamber for the MRI scan.

I arrived back in Radiologie, wachtkamer 6, only when it was too late. The gates had already been sealed. And I was powerless. Standing in the cold on the outside. Drinking machine cappuchino from a paper cup. Pathetically trying to enjoy a book... But mostly stewing in my impotence.

Of course, I was glad when it was over. When we could see Olivia again. It did me good to see her tiny frame stir and shake off the heavy mantel of anaesthesia -- slowly at first, with a drunken swagger and weary eyes, but gradually strengthenening and rising up again. Her resurrection gave me hope and a moment's respite from my own powerlessness.

Yet deep within me, I know that I cannot and will not ever escape my weakness. Yes, my daughter is back at home -- her usual beautiful self -- but we remain as nothing but blades of grass, blown by the winds of greater powers. We cannot interpret the MRI, the EEG, the IBOTMS (infuriating bureaucracy of the medical system)... We must simply wait to hear the neurologist tell us the results, yet we don't even know when we should be expecting that call. We must wait for the neurologist to consult with the vascular surgeon, who must consult with the plastic surgeon, and it seems purposely vague on when we will come to the end of this chain... Then assuming the doctors will approve surgery and move forward, we must wait on another waiting list until Olivia will see the inside of an operating room. And it pushes me to insanity that we can do nothing about this. We are powerless. Weak. Inept. Impotent. We must simply wait...

I understand that -- unfortunately -- the problem goes a lot deeper than the pursuit of treatment for Olivia's hemangioma. Our weakness is so widespread. We cannot heal our daughter. We cannot alter the passage of time. Furthermore, we cannot affect the earth's weather and climate patterns. We cannot predict the day of our death. We cannot make people love us... We can do so little, when you really think about it.

And I hate this. I am angry about this. My powerlessness...

When it comes down to it, my only choice is for faith and trust: trust the doctors... and, more meaningfully, faith in God. Frankly, I don't like being dealt that hand. But I guess it's preferable to the alternatives: despair, fear, and anger. So I try to shake off the wearying pessmism that drugs me, blink away the eyes of anger, and stagger to my knees in a resurrection of my tireless typical powerlessness...

Sunday, August 14, 2005


These billboards are everywhere in Amsterdam these days -- seemingly at every street corner and tram stop in the city. I'm sure Cosmopolitan must have paid a small fortune to plaster this magazine cover so far and so wide...

It shouts out to anyone within viewing distance: Pret met Cosmo (Fun with Cosmo)! Including... Erotische Geheimen (Erotic Secrets) with Verborgen Erogene Zones (Hidden Erogenous Zones) and De Complete Penis-Files (you probably don't need translation for that one)... Also posing the timeless question about Je Seks CV: van Maagd tot Man-Eater - Hoe fijn is veel ervaring? (Your Sex Resumé: from Virgin to Man-Eater - How beneficial is much experience?)... And of course, this is the icing on the cake: Nu met GRATIS Durex Condoom! (Now with FREE Durex Condom!)...

Truthfully, it seems a bit ridiculous to me. Ridiculous -- and sad. I just wonder what price will ultimately have to be paid for such a cheap view of sex...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Nobel prizeworthy

It's so easy to believe that there's nothing to learn from the Bible's exhaustive and generally uninteresting lists of geneologies... But recently, I learned something from just such a geneology. In fact, I think I may have discovered none other than the key to world peace.

In reading through 1 Chronicles chapter 8, I was fascinated to discover that a whole line of descendents somehow managed to survive Saul, the first king of Israel. Maybe this doesn't seem so special, and maybe you've never given it much thought (I know that I certainly hadn't). We know much about Saul and quite a bit about his son Jonathan. But we know considerably less about Jonathan's son Merib-Baal (also known as Mephibosheth), although I can recall some obtuse references to this handicapped young man that David took under his wing out of honor and respect for Saul and Jonathan. But I guess I always assumed that a "cripple" in that culture could never survive and even reproduce -- so I figured that the family line had died with Merib-Baal, and that's why we never heard much more of the line of Saul...

But 1 Chronicles records that Merib-Baal did indeed have a son: Micha. And Micha had four sons -- and the family line kept expanding from there. Generations later, 1 Chronicles 8:40 records that "The sons of Ulam (a descendent of Saul) were brave warriors who could handle the bow. They had many sons and grandsons -- 150 in all." And that was just one element of what must have survived from Saul's family tree... There were probably thousands.

And yet I don't know of any rebellion, disloyalty, revolution -- clamboring for rights to the throne. These untold thousands were descendents of Saul -- the original king of Israel, innaugural ruler of God's chosen people. It would not have been a stretch for them to believe that they were "rightful" heirs to the throne. They were strong and brave warriors -- and descendents of the king -- yet they held no royal power... To me, that sounds like a recipe for revolution.

Yet these men were in fact loyalists -- presumably ardent supporters of the Davidic dynasty. Ten of the twelve tribes of Israel broke off to form their own kingdom -- but the Benjamites, including these descendents of Saul, were the only tribe of Israel to stick with Judah and the line of kings descended from David. And while the battle for royal succession raged generation after generation among the rulers of the Northern Kingdom (murder, revenge, and rebellion galore), the Southern Kingdom of Judah and Benjamin remained relatively stable and peaceful, with an orderly succession of kings descended from the line of David -- the very man who had replaced Saul as ruler of God's chosen people.

Incredible, isn't it? But how? And why? Potentially one of the most volatile situations in the history of the world (battles for royal succession and "rights" to power -- the stuff filling our history books as well as popular novels and films)... mysteriously averted and avoided. It's hard to understand...

But not so unexplainable. I believe the key to this improbable peace goes back to the simple decisions of one man -- one self-assured, compassionate, respectful, and godly servant of the Lord -- David. Although annointed by God to replace Saul as king, David was not power-hungry or consumed with self-preservation. David himself was a loyalist to Saul. He had opportunity, on more than one occasion, to kill Saul -- even under circumstances that could easily have been justified as "self-defense" -- but he repeatedly refused to "lay a hand on the Lord's annointed" (1 Samuel 26:11). He even vowed to Prince Jonathan -- who would have been his adversary under typical circumstances, as a competitor to the throne -- that he would be kind to his descendents and not wipe them off the face of the earth (1 Samuel 20:13-16), which would have normally been such a common response following a transition in power in that era... Thus, when Jonathan's son timidly surfaced some time after the death of Saul and Jonathan (at the hands of the Philistines -- not David), the new king proved his loyalty to be genuine and complete. He gave Merib-Baal a place of honor in his royal house and created the opportunity, evidently, for Saul's family line to prosper in spite of the circumstances that would seem to dictate otherwise.

And thus I see that one man's kindness and loyalty can make a profound impact on nations, generations, and countless individual lives. It would have been very easy for David to cut off the one pitiful branch remaining from Saul's family tree -- out of fear, consolidation of power, "common sense," revenge, self-preservation... But he didn't. He decided to do something different and make a difference in the process. It was one man and one friendship -- between David and Jonathan -- that changed the course of history and allowed Judah and Benjamin to co-exist, even as allies. One man and one friendship that allowed the children and grandchildren of Ulam to serve as brave warriors, skillfully shooting arrows in protection and service of the Davidic dynasty.

It's unbelievable, really. Revolutionary -- in a curious sort of counter-revolutionary way...

Do we dare to believe that we hold this same power today? Is it possible to believe that such answers can be claimed for our modern questions of power struggles, ethnic cleansings, revenge, retaliation, self-preservation? Israelis and Palestineans? Hutus and Tutsis? America and al-Quaida? Theo van Gogh and Mohammed B.? Me and the boys who broke into my home through the living room window?

It seems impossible to believe... But I think I want to try.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Subcultural Immersion

I'm amazed by the number of subcultures saturating our society today. They're everywhere -- centered around anything and everything -- hiding in caves, in cafés, and in all the hard-to-reach corners of our culture. It's fascinating to discover these groups of people throughout the world who know practically everything regarding a particular aspect of life about which I know absolutely nothing.

Eva tells me about her and Mandy's obsession with electronic music -- the stuff that's "kind of experimental, but still understandable" -- like Death Cab for Cuties or Postal Service (who has to give some kind of free concert every year for the US Postal Service, in order to maintain the rights to their band's name). They flock to concerts featuring all the right bands in all the right clubs -- along with everyone else from that world of wonder... And yet, I don't know if I would really even be able to pick out "electronic music" if I heard it out of a line-up.

While I'm talking with Eva, she nods in greeting to a large Dutch man in a Billabong t-shirt, on his way out of the café and back across the street to his surf shop (in central Amsterdam, mind you). And in this casual encounter, I stumble across another secret society. It turns out that there's an appreciable number of Dutchmen who enjoy to surf in the relatively calm cold waters of the North Sea -- a subculture of a the general surfing subculture, if you will... And I shake my head with a sense of confusion and curiosity.

Later, I read the story of my brother's initiation to the world of comic books and fantasmical graphic art, and I'm reminded of another corner of society that knows virtually everything about the X-Men, the Justice League of America -- the various interpretations and representations of the Superman icon. It's a complex culture with its own values and mores... and yet even in trying to choose the appropriate words to write this paragraph, I flop like a fish out of water in the boat of that subculture.

Truth be told, I belong to my own set of subcultures... People of Swedish/Norweigian ancestry (otherwise known as people who can correctly identify what lutefisk is and instinctively comprehend the meaning of the exclamation "Uff-da"), Americans living in the Netherlands (those who can't help but inappropriately grin at the mention of the word vaart), People who live in the Transvaalbuurt of Amsterdam Oost (who mark their relation to one another based on proximity to the neighborhood Dekamarkt, Vomar, or Albert Heijn), Alumni of Bowling Green State University (those who can sing the words to "Ay Ziggy Zoomba"), Basketballers (the extreme minority of people -- particularly in Europe -- who do what they're supposed to when you say "Give and Go")...

And then of course, my faith places me within a subculture of Western Christianity -- though I desperately hope I can avoid its swings into absurdity (with Jesus-brand music, Jesus-endorsed literature, Jesus-approved clothing, Jesus-flavored breath mints)... Writing this blog is participating in another subculture... Reading the comments to my posting from August 2, 2005 -- written by other families affected by vascular birthmarks -- is evidence of another subculture... And if I can't escape it, then I believe that no one can escape it. This proliferation of miscrocosmoses is incredible, but inevitable. Our culture is a culture of subcultures...

But why do we divide ourselves this way? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is this an imprint of divinity or fallability? Does this create a world of security or volatililty? I don't know... I don't know... I don't know... I don't know...

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Understanding Noah

It's a provocative statement, sprayed across the side of a prefabricated corrugated metal shed in Amsterdam Oost: "This is why Noah build his ark." But what does it mean?

Noah built his ark because of the joys inherrent in a construction site? Because of the amount of rain falling in Amsterdam this summer? ...Or Because of a society so morally corrupt that wanton vandalism of others' property becomes merely a second thought to one's own agendas and messages?

Friday, August 05, 2005


On a cold, gray, and rainy November morning in August, we grieved with Linda for the loss of her friend. The news was received in a casual morning's perusal of the last twelve hours worth of e-mails -- casual until my eyes scanned across Linda's words of explanation, and suddently the air became thicker, the skies turned grayer, and my heart grew heavy: Bagheera had passed away in the night.

To some, it's hard to understand the meaning and emotions caught up in the death of a beloved pet, and -- truth be told -- I've never been much of a "cat person" (slightly allergic, in fact)... But Bagheera was more than a pet: she was a friend, a companion, and a symbol of familiarity, faithfulness, fearlessness... For some reason, I've found myself strangely affected by the loss of Bagheera... And honestly, I don't fully understand the meaning of these emotions.

Linda doesn't have trouble understanding. For her, Bagheera was one of the few static points over the last two years of transition and uncertainty. An anchor during the storms of uprooted relationships, nauseating homesickness, and debilitating unfamiliarity that mark the sojourn to a new and foreign world. Sleek, svelte, smooth, smart -- a cat can be all of the things that a human cannot as stranger in a strange land. For Linda, her cat was a friend, roommate, comforter, confidant, and beloved daughter. Someone who would always listen, lounge, and lavish unconditional love through the peaks and valleys of life in Amsterdam... Losing Bagheera is a loss of means and meaning -- clearly evidenced by the sobs poured out over a bouquet of sunflowers. Grieving such a loss is no mystery for Linda.

Elliot doesn't have trouble understanding. Just three and a half years into his life, Bagheera has become his first real experience with death. His gateway into the existential questions with which we must all wrestle: Why did Bagheera die? -- Why is Linda sad? -- Why can't I see her again? -- Where is Bagheera now? -- Am I going to die? And while death is a new concept, sadness and separation are very meaningful keys that provide passage through the gateway to the formation of his understanding. So Elliot does grieve. He grieves because Bagheera started as a different kind of gateway: his first real experience with a cat. At first, Elliot would not want to even go near Bagheera (nor would Bagheera want to go near Elliot). Over time, he would get near to her (and she to him) -- but touching was still out of the question. Eventually, physical touch could be initiated, down near the tail... It was a slow dance, but they finally found fidelity, fearlessness, and friendship -- to the point that her passing now presents pain.

Now, through these people that we love, Marci and I are pulled into this grief. Together, we experience the emotions. Together, we ask the meaning. We wrestle with the deeper implications of a friend's death. What is heaven like? Do animals find life after death? Defined answers are hard to come by...

Yet if heaven is meant to be a place of joy and fulfillment, I find it hard to believe that Linda will not again experience the joy and fulfillment of stroking Bagheera's soft, warm fur one day. And if we're one day promised new and glorified bodies to experience a new Heaven and a new Earth, I find it hard to believe that there would not be new and glorified animals as well. Eden reborn... But then again, maybe the animals never left Eden in the first place. They never knowingly disobeyed. They never tasted the forbidden fruit. They never fell from grace.

As I consider this, I can see the reason for Bagheera's aura of innocence and divinity. And I can understand why we now miss her so much: we must persist in this fallen world without them.

Tonight we say good-night to Bagheera -- wherever she is -- and we look forward to an end of this existence of tossing and turning, when we can wake up in glory. Together in Eden.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


What's the first thing you notice when glancing at this picture of my daughter, Olivia? Honestly... Is it the beautiful juxtaposition of such a new life in the midst of such an ancient setting? Is it Olivia's toothy grin? The little wrinkles above her nose when she really smiles? The way her wispy hair curls at her temples? ...Or is it the big red lump on her forehead?

Olivia's hemangioma has taught me a lot about social perceptions. Not that it's avoidable, or even necessarily bad -- but it's obvious that a person's initial impression of another human being is undeniably influenced first and foremost by "abnormality" over "normality" and commonality. Over the months in which our daughter's hemangioma has grown and persisted, Marci and I have fielded countless hundreds (if not thousands) of questions from strangers about the growth on her forehead...

"What happened there?" (Nothing, it's just a medical anomoly occuring in as much as ten percent of the population). "Can they treat it?" (Yes, but it's a long process). "Does it hurt?" (No). "Is it going to explode?" (No). "Woah, dude -- what's up with that?" (I've never been exactly sure how I'm supposed to answer that one)... Of course, little children are the most direct with their questions and observations -- still, you'd be surprised at the knee-jerk reaction from many adults. But then again, what should we expect? It's noticeable. It's unusual. It's unfamiliar. It's different.

Webster's New World Dictionary defines a hemangioma as "a benign tumor, lesion, or birthmark consisting of dense clusters of blood vessels." But is it really benign? Perhaps medically, it's a less aggressive and less dangerous form of tumor... But socially, I have a hard time seeing it as truly "benign." From a cultural and societal perspective, Olivia's hemangioma is absolutely malignant, malicious, and malevolent as it blocks the public perception of my daughter. Strangers miss her smile, her spunky curiosity, her intelligent eyes, and her smooth perfect skin because it's hard to see past the big red lump on her forehead. She's seen first as a medical anomoly, and then -- only second -- as a beautiful baby girl...

Sadly, I cannot blame others for this first impression -- as I'm woefully aware that I'm guilty of the same on other levels. How quickly do I make a snap judgment on a person because he or she is Black? Asian? Marokaans? Surinaams? Overweight? Cross-eyed? Parapalegic? Gray-haired? Homeless? Beautiful? The eyes of all mankind are infected with a socially-transmitted disease that blocks our perception of a person's true... well, personhood. And this seems to be a pitiful fact of life.

Yet I grieve this fact. And the beauty of my daughter propels me to continually scrape off the scaly cataracts from my eyes -- also clawing at the eyes of those around me, as I go -- to seek and rejoice in the subtle, more meaningful beauty that fills my universe.