Friday, December 30, 2005

Join the Band

I'd say that I can understand about 99.9 percent of any given communication in the English language... Over the last couple of years, it could be estimated that I've worked up my fluency in the Dutch language to somewhere between 90 and 95 percent... This week, I've learned that I can understand a surpring amount of German -- possibly even 60 to 70 percent... When it comes to Spanish or Italian, my linguistic proficiency is probably more in the range of 5 percent... And then when it comes to understanding Polish, Romanian, or Russian, I'd have to say that my comprehension is easily less than 1 percent... I'm fascinated by the mechanics of language, and I've had ample opportunity to observe the intricacies of international communication throughout the course of the past three days in Amsterdam.

A conference center in the middle of the old city has become a collecting point for Christians all across Europe this week, as Zolder50 helps to host a unique event called Awaken 2005... This "first international conference for Europeans involved with the Great Commission Association of Churches" represents the dreams, the hopes, the prayers, and the preparations of many... And indeed, it's been encouraging to see old friends from across the Continent, learn from the Bible through truly gifted communicators, and celebrate exhuberant times of music and worship.

But with men and women from Albania, America, Belgium, England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, and Ukraine, I've been most impacted by the way that interaction has been affected -- and even more so by the way that interaction has been unaffected -- by linguistic barriers.

For me, I believe one of the most powerful moments of the conference was when a Ukrainian accordian player sat in on a worship set with the Zolder50 band. He had been invited to take the stage for a light-hearted stroll through the classic accordian melodies of each country represented at the conference -- a rather corny bit, honestly, but very spirited and fun. Then after the brief interlude was finished, the worship band began to play, the conference participants began to sing, and I lost track of the Ukrainian accordian player in my own sense of reflection and musical prayer to God. With my head bowed and my eyes closed, I was singing along with the mixed mass of Europeans, when my ears perked at the sound of the accordian blending in with the drums, guitars, and voices of the Amsterdammers providing the primary musical leadership. Filling in around the melody beautifully, the sound of the Ukrainian accordian player filled in the reality of what I was experiencing as a son of God worshipping with my brothers and sisters from across the Continent... And I actually began to weep as the room shared in song to our God and King.

Later on, it was equally compelling to sing an old praise song -- "Lord I Lift Your Name on High" -- trading languages with each repetition of the song. The screen flashed lyrics in languages that I understood 99.9 percent, followed by languages that I understood 0.1 percent... And it was beautiful to understand the heart of God in drawing followers from every ethnicity, every nationality, every language -- across the varied landscape of Europe and beyond... My soul was filled with worship and gratitude for my Creator as I silently prayed: Dank u wel. Danke shoen. Grazie mille. Muchas gracias. Jenk uja. Speciba boshoi. Thank you...

* * * * *

[NOTE: I also find it interesting to track the perspectives of others who have been involved in Awaken 2005. Noel and JR provide intriguing commentary from the perspective of people serving in the role as primary communicators. Todd and Sander write some interesting reflections on some of the dominant topics of the conference. And Billy offers a unique look at Awaken through the eyes of someone working hard to run the machinery of the conference... If you're interested in understanding more of what Awaken has really been like, follow the links and soak up the collective insight of other bloggers...]

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

to rouse from sleep

It takes the strength of a bear to stir from winter's hibernation. These days, I find that I must use every ounce of energy I can muster to rise from a night of warm, comforted sleep into the black dawn of mid-winter...

When the alarm kicks on at 6:00, my arm mechanically swings to swat the snooze function of the alarm clock -- buying me an extra nine minutes of sweet slumber. More often than not, nine minutes turns into eighteen minutes... which turns into twenty-seven minutes... But eventually, I am roused enough to throw off the covers, swing my bare feet over the edge of the bed, and step out into the realities of a new day.

It's usually the last thing that I want to do at that (recurring) moment of life -- but if I were never to awaken, I would never discover the adventures that each day has to bring.

Sunday, December 25, 2005


The stars are bright and brilliant, piercing through the blackness on a silent night in quaint and quiet Bethlehem. On the pleasantly obscure outskirts of this pleasantly obscure village, the golden glow of a lantern illuminates a cozy stable where a miracle has just taken place. A chubby-cheeked, rosy-complexioned, soft and innocent baby boy named Jesus -- the newborn King of Kings and Lord of Lords -- is sleeping peacefully among a circle of curious livestock, adoring shepherds, solemn Eastern nobility, and his satisfied young parents. The sweet fragrance of myrrh and frankincense is mixed with the earthy scent of fresh hay, and hushed voices blend with the soft bleating of wooly little lambs to create an atmosphere of perfect awe and reverence... Certainly, the sight of this sweet child lying in a manger is a humble image—yet, paradoxically, it is a humble majesty that bows the hearts of everyone in the tiny stable. Inexplicably, yet undeniably, the scene invokes a feeling of warmth, wonder, joy, fulfillment, and the peace that passes all understanding.

This is what we celebrate when we speak of the "incarnation," is it not? From the Latin word, “incarnatio,” the term refers to the birth of Jesus -- God’s one and only son “becoming in flesh” to join the ranks of the created world for a redemptive mission: to bring peace and good will to all mankind…Mysterious and wondrous, the concept of incarnation stirs our hearts at the recognition of the miracle recorded in the Gospel of John in which "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."

That notwithstanding, I believe the common understanding of the incarnation is ill-defined, illogical, and incomplete.

I am not a linguist. I am not a theologian. I freely confess that I cannot read or write Latin, nor have I studied doctrinal terminology from any kind of academic perspective. Still, I have reason to believe that we are missing some of the crude nuances of the term, “incarnation.” My tourist/restaurant-menu-reading fluency in the Latin languages tells me that “incarnatio” does not merely indicate something “becoming in flesh” -- though I’m certainly not knowledgeable enough to declare this standard definition incorrect. All I know is that when I order Italian food or Spanish food or Mexican food, I’ve gleaned that the word “carne” simply means “meat.” My familiarity with the Italian and Spanish holiday greetings of “Buon Natale” and “Feliz Navidad,” offer a further clue in translation, presuming that “natale” and “navidad” are related to the English word “nativity” (or “birth”) -- all of which seem curiously similar to the “natio” part of “incarnatio.” And finally figuring in a basic understanding of the Latin- derivative prefix of “in” (which abounds in practically every language with which I’m familiar), a simple syllogism would indicate that “incarnatio” could be irreverently translated as “birth into meat.”

Thus, a further syllogistic rendering of that classic quote from the apostle John could be proposed as “The Spirit-Creator of the Universe became Meat and assumed a place on the space-time continuum among our ignorant and ignoble race.” Alas, the words just fill one with a sense of awe and wonder, don’t they? That true Christmas miracle of the Almighty-turned-Meat…

But to be honest, this definition of the incarnation seems to strike closer to the original Bethlehem scene, when envisioned from a more practical perspective. Perhaps our classic Christmas story needs to be re-written…

It is, in fact, an incredibly dark night. Small, cold white pin-pricks of starlight offer the only interruption to the fearsome and fathomless blackness over the insignificant provincial back-country of colonial Judea. The skies overhead seem mostly clear, but there are dark clouds on the horizon.

An uneasy peace trembles in these times of oppression and foreign domination; in fact, the residents of miniscule Bethlehem will be saddened -- though certainly not surprised -- to see this tenuous peace transformed into a horrifying blood bath within the coming months. Poorly understood but unmistakably recognized, the advance whisperings of revolutions and coups have already caused the powers of the world to begin squirming and squabbling out of fear and self-preservation. Many innocent men, women, and children will soon be sacrificed under the banner of power consolidation, and the bizarre events unfolding this evening seem to merely foreshadow coming troubles…

In the putrid alleyways off the main thoroughfares of Bethlehem, grunts and screams in the darkness give way to the higher-pitched scream of a newborn baby. Instantaneously, inexperienced parents have been inaugurated out of scared teen-agers who hardly even know each other -- their relationship complicated by the social stigma of pre-marital conception. In the weak light and deep shadows of a derelict animal shelter, the young parents stare dumbfounded at the purple body of “their” son, covered in mucous and blood, slimy black hair curling around his cone-shaped head. Not long after the end of labor, strange and surreal visitors begin call upon the young family in the small stable, interrupting this time of intense familial privacy -- poor, dirty, overeager shepherds from the surrounding hill country, elbowing each other and grinning stupidly as if sharing an inside joke; proud foreign dignitaries speaking broken Aramaic and privately babbling in an unknown language amongst themselves. Bleating and braying livestock add to the cacophony, and the senses are overwhelmed by the horrible stench of too many camels, donkeys, and sheep crammed into this overcrowded stable of this overcrowded inn of this overcrowded town… It’s almost too much to take it all in: the fear, the uncertainty, the anxiety -- perhaps a sense of disappointment in this skewed “fulfillment of God’s plan,” or possibly even horror at the anti-climactic comprehension of what has just happened.

Indeed, the Spirit-Creator of the Universe has become Meat and assumed a place on the space-time continuum among an ignorant and evil race. A pitiable lump of flesh and blood that only knows how to scream and cry to communicate its hunger every two or three hours -- all throughout the day, and all throughout the night... Yes, there is beauty and joy in this situation -- as any parent can recall from the hours and weeks following the birth of a child -- but there is also much fear, fragility, and fatigue in caring for such a scrawny new life.

Without a doubt, such an incarnation is a humble event. Yet for the LORD-Yahweh -- El-Shaddai, Adonai -- incarnation is not just humility... Incarnation is humiliation. The Almighty Lord of Heaven and Earth drawing sustenance from the breast of a simple peasant woman, struggling to flail uncoordinated muscles, soiling himself and needing an adult to wipe his bottom for him… It’s an embarrassment. Pausing to carefully consider the realities of the “Word becoming Meat” to live among His people allows for an image that is astonishingly brutal. Feelings of warmth, wonder, joy, fulfillment, and peace become hardly the most natural human responses to such an understanding of the events surrounding the incarnation.

Nevertheless, contrary to logical reasoning -- instead of the ignoble aspects of Jesus' birth diminishing the beauty and significance of the incarnation -- such an understanding of the incarnation actually adds immeasurable value and creates a deeper appreciation for exactly what happened on that day that the Word became Meat and made his dwelling among us. As each man and woman experiences life in this broken and ugly world, the incarnation helps to provide consolation and navigation through the evils of the world, as we follow the originally incarnated one. Even as spiritually-reborn sons and daughters of God, we all experience vulnerability, suffering, calamity, and disenchantment as people living as strangers in (yet not of) this world. And in view of the original incarnation, our “light and momentary troubles” no longer seem so ignoble or demeaning. In fact, they are an opportunity for identification and conformation to the image of Jesus.

Furthermore, a more complete understanding of the incarnation gives us a more complete appreciation for God Himself. Reducing the birth of Jesus to a happy, golden postcard image diminishes the miraculous leap over the incredible chasm between us and God -- cheapens it, tarnishes it. The extreme gap between our world’s brokenness and ugliness and God’s glory and beauty, which God’s Son was compelled to experience, is so much greater than we could ever understand. Consequently, a deeper appreciation for the incarnation -- in all its brutality -- helps us to grasp just how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ… An absolutely amazing gift of grace.

So the mystery of the incarnation is a paradox indeed. Personally, I think if I were there at the scene of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, I probably would have been more prone to gag than to adore, more likely to cry than to smile… Yet as I consider the scene from the vantage point of history, I am indeed drawn into a spirit of perfect awe and reverence. My heart is bowed by the humiliating majesty of Jesus’ birth. And inexplicably -- yet undeniably -- reflection upon the incarnation stirs a feeling of warmth, wonder, joy, fulfillment, and the peace that passes all understanding.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Almost Christmas

One of my favorite moments of the year is the last afternoon of the last "regular" weekday before Christmas. It always seems to be a surreal, slow-motion time of the year that is 25 percent "business as usual" and 75 percent anticipation of what is to come.

I remember that moment of transition when school would give way to "Christmas Break" as a child. The last day of school before the break was always something unusual -- maybe a musical program, everyone dressed up in red sweaters and holiday pins. The day was by no means a drag, but still I would watch the clock move toward the closing bell of the day -- gazing out the window with a growing flutter of joy and freedom. The days surrounding Christmas were filled with playing in the snow, drinking hot chocolate, opening presents... Oh, I loved those days!

Then, I remember that moment of transition when university final exams gave way to packing up for "home." Stopping by every room on the dormitory floor, shaking hands and wishing "Merry Christmas" before loading the blue laundry basket into the back of my Chevette for the hour-and-a-half ride between Bowling Green and Shelby. The sense of joy and freedom was just as real then as it was as a boy; it even prompts a certain feeling in the pit of my stomach each year... very specific memories are embedded from all the years of fluttery joyful stomachs. I can recall specific songs that were playing on the stereo in my dorm room while packing and in my car while driving through the snow-slicked highways of Northwest Ohio. The days surrounding Christmas were filled with catching up with my siblings and parents, eating good food, making cookies at Marci's house, watching Christmas movies... Oh, I loved those days!

Even now, as an adult, I am fueled through my final days' work tasks as I approach that moment of transition when the work week fades into the holiday. Light-hearted banter with whomever is left in a quiet office, a slowly turned faucet on the flow of e-mails and telephone calls, getting to a stopping point and saying, "I think I'm ready to go home." The ride home seems happier, I feel myself smiling and making friendly eye contact with strangers. Everything is closing up for the holiday, and again I feel a sense of joy and freedom. The days surrounding Christmas are filled with sleeping in, listening to music, exchanging gifts... Oh, I love these days!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

longer day

It's early morning here in Amsterdam, and I'm waiting for dawn... truthfully, the day promises nothing spectacular, serendipitous, serene, soothing, soft, suffusing, successful... Really not much worth waiting for, I guess. If I know Amsterdam winters at all (and I think I do), today's patterns of astronomy, geology, and meteorology are not likely to be noticeably different from yesterday in any way at all.

But despite casual appearances, today will be different.

This morning's dawn will, in fact, signal an end to the longest night of the year. Following the winter solstice, today's sunrise represents a moment of transition. On the one hand, the hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere today are not anything to be excited about; in fact, the shortness of time between today's sunrise and sunset is undermined by only one other day out of 365 days in the year... But on the other hand, that other day -- that shorter day -- was yesterday.

So today is a longer day. And from here on out, the light of each day grows slowly -- almost imperceptibly -- longer. And that, my friends, is something worth waiting for...

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Machinery of Memory

Have you ever noticed how much energy it takes to create memories? Wait -- perhaps that's not the right question... I would say that the greatest and most meaningful memories seem to be captured effortlessly; it takes no great feats of concentration or activity to burn a special experience into one's mind. But have you ever noticed how much energy it takes to create opportunities for memories to be created?

Such an equation was formulating in my mind on the train ride home from Gouda on Tuesday -- like Einstein's Theory of Relativity... The degree to which "ordinary" existence must be altered times the degree of exposure to multisensory stimuli equals the strength of impression left upon one's subconscious... Or something like that. Of course, the mathematics of it all are merely a silly diversion. But it seems to me that truly memorable experiences do not typically happen without a significant expenditure of energy. It seems like the vast majority of my most memorable evenings up to this point in my life have left me exhausted -- utterly fatigued by the journey into unfamiliar territory and the corresponding sensory overload. It always seems to end with struggling to stay awake on the quiet ride home, the mild feeling of nausea and discomfort, the sickeningly sweet satisfaction of time well spent.

On Tuesday, our family visited the city of Gouda for the first time. But wasn't to gawk at the golden wheels of dairy derivative paraded through the old-time cheese market (although I must confess that I might be interested to go back someday for this prototypical tourist experience)... Instead, we felt like true Nederlanders encountering the city six months outside of the peak tourist season. We were privileged to experience the city in the company of thousands of Nederlanders (even including her majesty, Queen Beatrix), coming together to observe the 50th annual observance of Gouda's Kaarsjesavond (Evening of Candles). Traditional dancing, a live nativity scene, street performers, horse-drawn carriages, holiday music, and candlelight from practically every window in town...

The evening was an unforgetable experience. But it was exhausting.

To allow participation in such a special event, we had to endure train delays, frozen extremities, hungry children, massive crowds, tight timelines, and uninformed expectations. By the end of the evening, as I was wiping excrement from the bottom of my squirming and screaming daughther on a packed and jostled train, I must admit that I found myself wishing we would have just stayed at home -- so the kids could have just gone to bed at their regular times and Marci and I could have just watched some television. It would have been so much easier. So much simpler... And so much more forgetable.

Of course, now that a few days' ordinary activities and a few nights' ordinary sleep have cushioned the experience, I am incredibly grateful that we made the effort to enjoy such an adventure. And I look forward to the next time that we'll get to forge such memories... But preferably not too soon. I need some rest first.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

one of those weeks

It's just been one of those weeks. Discouraging, draining, dismal, dark, dreary, dragging... I'm stressed. I'm overwhelmed. I'm tired. I feel like my days have recently been full of dead pigeons -- perpetually nauseating unpleasantries that consume my time and attention. Even though there are things that I can do to superficially combat the situation, I generally feel like there is nothing truly meaningful that I can do to avert, minimize, or cut short such an experience. It's just one of those weeks.

I'm not so surprised by such a season of despair. I'm not so concerned about my ability to persevere. I'm not so convinced that these present feelings are a sign of anything terribly wrong or bad. But still, I'm not having so much fun in the midst of it all.

I take comfort from the fact that many others have experienced (and are currently experiencing) these feelings. I was encouraged this morning to read the words of King David, a song and a prayer to the God of the Universe: "O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me... Every moment you know where I am... I could ask for the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night -- but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are both alike to you... Search me, O God, and know my heart... Lead me along the path of everlasting life" [selected portions of Psalm 139].

Still, I'm looking forward to one of those other kinds of weeks -- when God knows the joy and exhuberance that I feel, when I feel more enveloped by light (since it doesn't matter to God anyway), and when I can speak of birds in flight and seasons of hope.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Dead Pigeon

There is a dead pigeon in my backyard -- a medium-sized slate-blue feathered corpse just two meters on the other side of the wall behind which my baby daughter sleeps. I can see the pitiful pigeon remains anytime I look out of the window in our kitchen. Preserved by the December-chilled concrete, the deceased bird lies with his feet curled toward the house and his head toward the neighbor's fence... It's disgusting -- but what's most disgusting is that I've been avoiding the dead pigeon in my backyard for a week and a half now.

To tell the truth, I'm scared to deal with the dead pigeon in my backyard. Any kind of interaction with the filth and pestilence of our backyard's pigeons is unpleasant -- especially during this time of the year when we humans forsake our outside spaces to the pigeons' foul rule of our urban canyon. Still, thinking about the logistics of this particular transaction is especially distasteful...

If I were to dispose of the bird, I would have to walk through the sludge of pigeon poop that has plastered our pavement; use a plastic bag or something like that to scoop up the maggoty matter (we have no shovel -- nor typically any need for a shovel -- in central Amsterdam); carry the coffin/bag back through the sludge; stop at the entrance to our kitchen in order to change shoes (my wife has this strange disdain for people tracking pigeon sludge across the house); walk the twenty meters to the neighborhood trash receptacle (hoping that none of the neighbors stop to talk at such an inopportune moment); and then finally come back inside to scrub my arms up to the elbows, like a surgeon, to disinfect any remaining traces of pestilence.

Thus, because this scenario does not appeal to me, I keep putting it off. It's silly, I know, but I initially kind of hoped that the pigeon was just taking a long nap and would eventually flutter back to life and resume his perch on a neighbor's balcony, cooing strange stories to his feathered friends as they rain down poop upon our backyard... But after a week of waiting, I determined that I would have no such luck. Even so, I'm not in any hurry to dispose of the dead pigeon in our backyard. Because it's ugly and disgusting. Because it's easier to let it be, since we're not using the backyard much these days, anyway. And, well, I've avoided the situation because there's just nothing fun about cleaning up pigeon remains.

Still, everytime I look out of that kitchen window, the bird body reminds me that it will not go away by itself. And, well, I must remember that there's nothing fun about having a dead pigeon in your backyard either. So one of these days, I suppose I'll do something. One of these days...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Progress Report

It's hard to believe that all four of the above photographs have been taken within the last week! As you can see, Olivia's recovery has progressed remarkably well...

Monday, December 05, 2005

Holiday Season

Since I was a little boy, the soundtrack of December has prominently featured "The Andy Williams Christmas Album." Initially, the music was scratched from an old LP drawn from the crease of a worn red cardboard record jacket in the living room of my parents' house. In more recent seasons, however, Marci and I have acquired our own personal copy of the album on CD (still with Andy Williams' grinning face on a simple red background) -- so the sound is accessible from the living room sound system (always the first album of the year during holiday decorating) as well as from my portable digital music player as I wash dishes, sit on the tram, or pedal my bicycle... For whatever reason, the dozen songs from "The Andy Williams Christmas Album" have become an integral part of what this time of the year sounds like and feels like to me.

In one of the well-known songs from the album, Andy Williams croons, "It's the most wonderful time of the year. With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call -- it's the hap-happiest season of all." And though I certainly recognize the imperfections, perversions, and pitfalls of holiday celebrations -- I have to admit that my thought process tends to more closely mirror the words of this song, when I consider my own experiences... And well, to be quite honest, I love the holiday season.

I've especially come to realize the advantages that come from exposure to a variety of different cultures. As a descendent of Swedish and Norwegian immigrants who grew up in the American Midwest and eventually moved to the most international city in Holland, I have the benefit of not just one set of holiday traditions -- and not just two -- but multiple expressions of holiday celebration, all of which happen to feature prominently at this time of the year.

The season starts with American Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November)... The day after Thanksgiving, we follow the tradition of our American families in putting up Christmas decorations (Dutch people think this is very early and very strange)... As we roll into early December, we are already in the process of celebrating the arrival and activity of Holland's Sinterklaas; then on December 5 (today) the Sinterklaas festivities culminate in a day of singing, celebrating, and exchanging gifts (outside of birthdays, this is the primary gift-giving holiday in the Netherlands -- but our family observes a simplified version of the celebration). In the following week, on December 13, our family observes the Swedish celebration of Santa Lucia. Then, the whole set of our cultural heritages (Scandinavian, American, and Dutch) compels us to gear up for a slew of special traditions surrounding Christmas Eve (December 24) and Christmas Day (December 25). Dutch holiday calendars also permit us an extra day of holiday relaxation for the Second Day of Christmas (December 26). And finally, the season culminates with special celebrations (preferably Dutch-style) on New Year's Eve (December 31) and New Year's Day (January 1)... Indeed, the end of November to the beginning of January represents a truly wonderful time of the year!

I suppose it can be confusing to create a personal or family identity in the midst of so many varied traditions... But I feel that I actually gain by sampling a bit of each, and I've come to cherish this time of the year as an opportunity for identification and affirmation with the various disparate facets of my identity. Of course, time, energy, and money limit the extent of my indulgence in the different holiday experiences. But I'm glad that I can eat lefse together with snert and mashed potatoes... And I can finish a holiday meal with either krumkake or with oliebollen or with pumpkin pie... I enjoy singing "Zie ginds komt de stoomboot" one week, "Sancta Lucia" the next week, and "Joy to the World" the week after that. I'm glad for so many special occasions during a time of the year that would otherwise be incredibly dark. I have no problem being a cultural mutt.

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Friday, December 02, 2005


It's unbelievable, really, how quickly Olivia has recovered from the surgery to remove her hemangioma. Just twenty-four hours after lying on an operating table in the AMC Hospital, Olivia was chasing her brother through the corridors of our apartment -- shrieking and laughing as she toddled along in her pajamas. Her hair cascaded in a golden bend over the white bandage protecting the incision site -- much in the same way that it used to bend over the bulge of strawberry-fleshed tumor that had previously dominated her forehead. It's been almost as if she's been in a better mood since surgery, and not the cranky drugged-up mess-of-a-child that we had anticipated. And, well, I guess you could say that we've just been surprised at how well things have gone this week. Surprised, and grateful for such an unexpected gift.

By midday, we overcame our incredulity and decided that Olivia was actually well enough to go out for a little excursion -- a trip to the Dam, to let my tourist mother experience a bit of the wintermarkt and the general buzz of holiday shopping in the heart of old Amsterdam. We picked up some small gifts at the Bijenkorf and had lunch overlooking the skating rink. Then, noting that it was getting close to nap-time for the kids, we arranged for Marci and my Mom to keep shopping while I took Elliot and Olivia on the tram home.

When we reached our neighborhood and disembarked from the tram, Elliot and Olivia were fighting over who got to play with the empty Cola-Light bottle -- thus it was I who first spotted the unusual characters on the far side of the Cilliersstraat, climbing into a beat-up Peugeot. But as soon as I exclaimed "Kijk!" and pointed to the surreal scene in front of us, the children's eyes brightened with surprise and excitemenet: it was two Zwarte Pieten, accompanied by none other than Sinterklaas himself! The photo above captured the moment beautifully. Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten were more than enthusiastic to interact with the wide-eyed Elliot. Olivia watched the whole scene with wonder, as Elliot received some pepernoten and the privilege of shaking the hand of the big man in red.

We walked away from the encounter with a sense of awe and mystery -- pleasantly surprised by the experience. Surprised, and grateful for such an unexpected gift.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Mission Accomplished

Marci and I woke early this morning with anxiety in our stomachs, worries on our minds, and prayers on our lips. Olivia, our 14-month-old daughter, stirred from her rest at 6:30 with hunger in her belly, sleep in her eyes, and a golf-ball sized tumor on her forehead...

By noon, the anxiety, worry, and fatigue were gone. Olivia's pre-surgical fast was ended in a flurry of flakey pastry crumbs. The hemangioma on her forehead was replaced by stitches and bandages. And the prayers on our lips turned from fervent intercession to exhuberant thanksgiving.

By God's grace, Olivia is recovering nicely from the long-anticipated surgery to excise her compound hemangioma. Events really could not have gone much more smoothly, so we really feel that God took care of us. We were blissfully aware of the prayers of many accompanying Olivia and the surgeons, and we have no reason to doubt the future of her recovery process.

When we arrived at the hospital this morning, around 7:15 or so, we were quickly checked in and brought back to the nursing area for preparation. A worker from the hospital started by introducing Olivia to a little doll who served as the model for demonstrating all the medical procedures that Olivia herself would be experiencing throughout the course of the morning: dressing in a hospital gown, IV insertion, anesthesia through a gas mask... Shortly afterwards, Marci and I were given an opportunity to talk with the nurses and one of the surgeons who would be assisting on the procedure. Then preparation for the surgery began immediately, and Marci was walking back towards the operating room with Olivia by about 8:00. After slipping under narcosis in Marci's arms, we could only entrust our daughter to the medical staff of the AMC and to the Creator and Sustainer of the world.

By 8:40, Marci and I were able to see Olivia in the recovery room. Her head was wrapped in gauze and her hair was a bit crusty -- taking on a bit of the persona of a battle-wounded soldier. Within a half-hour, Olivia awoke briefly. However, as she was still heavily under the effects of the anesthesia, she was kind of disoriented and unsettled (that's just a nice way of saying that she was thrashing about like an angry prize-winning trout!). Fortunately, we were eventually able to calm her down, as it turned out that the monitor for her pulse and oxygen levels was attached to her right thumb (which often serves as a kind of pacifier for her). Her head-dressing needed to be reapplied, her monitor needed to be reaffixed to the big toe on her left foot, but after a few minutes she went back to sleep for awhile longer.

Around 10:30, Olivia woke up again -- this time, more her usual happy self. She drank some juice, walked around a little bit, and seemed to be acting quite normally, even flirting with the nurses and making friends with other patients on the floor. To our great astonishment we were given the green light to go home shortly after 11:00 with some basic instructions for checking her status, providing her with pain medication, and maintaining the dressing. It took us awhile to get Olivia ready and get a little snack while our friend came to pick us up, but -- believe it or not -- we were home by noon!

Our next follow-up appointment is December 20. We're fortunate that we won't have to go back any earlier because Olivia's stitches are the self-dissolving kind. The surgeons have warned us that Olivia's scar presently "makes it look like they're not very good plastic surgeons" because the skin is all puckered up -- pulled together like a draw-string purse in an effort to reduce the length of the scar. But they said that within a couple of months, everything should be looking quite nice.

At any rate, we just wanted to thank you for your prayers and let you know that everything has turned out remarkably well! The process is still not 100 percent completed, yet we feel like we've crossed a major threshhold. There will certainly be other trials in Olivia's life, and we will certainly need to continue depending on God for both the serious and the mundane. Still, it's been exciting to see how far we've come. And it's even more exciting to look forward to the future...