Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Klaar met Cover-to-Cover

"Ik ben de alfa en de omega, de eerste en de laatste, het begin en het einde." (Openbaring 22:13)

I love the way that the Bible ends in the same way that it begins -- with the power of the Creator's interaction with Creation, beautiful bookends on either end of God's eternal story. "The Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the ending..." My respect for God and the Bible only deepens with each reading.

After a year of commitment, I have finally finished Zolder50's "Cover-to-Cover" reading plan -- systematically digesting the Bible in its entirety over 365 daily readings. Somehow, I actually managed to complete the reading entirely through using the Nieuwe Bijbel Vertaling (Dutch translation of the ancient scriptures, initially published in late 2004), and I'm so glad that I did it. I feel a true sense of accomplishment and enlightenment from the process.

Reading the text in Dutch brought its share of challenges for me (a native English speaker), but it also brought several advantages -- and I would recommend such an attempt by anyone who might be in a position to give it a try. Of course, my Dutch reading skills improved dramatically throughout the course of the year as a result of following the Cover-to-Cover plan in the NBV. Furthermore, I feel like I was able to get a fresh look at familiar passages and consequently learn new lessons for my life. I feel like my understanding of the Bible and its depth of meaning for my life and for the world at large broadened immeasurably through the experience.

If you've never tried reading through the Bible before, I would highly recommend it. On an artistic level, on an intellectual level, on a heart level, and on a spiritual level, there is simply no other work of literature that can remotely compare to the living Word of God.

Sunday, January 29, 2006


The last week of January 2003 was a cosmic week in my memory -- a week of miracles and transformations and shock. Looking back, three years later, I can hardly believe that so much happened in such a short period of time. Like a wedding or a birth or a death, the recollection of that fateful week is a montage of disparate images -- blurred emotion more than chronological record -- and yet it is the recollection of an event that was truly significant, that trancends historical documentary. This week marks the three-year anniversary of our family's move to Amsterdam.

In the third week of January 2003, we were still waiting (after almost half a year) for the sale of our house in Bowling Green. We were still sharing the story of the "Amsterdam Project" with anyone and everyone who would listen, hoping to build a base of financial support that would allow us to focus on full-time ministry in the Netherlands. And we were still wondering if we'd ever actually be boarding a plane across the Atlantic, to help build a new community of faith in central Amsterdam...

Yet by the first week of February 2003, our American automobiles were in other people's garages and our winter coats were in a shipping crate on an Atlantic oceanliner, while we were struggling through icy winds to frigid tram stops. We had set a fresh bouquet of Dutch tulips on our make-shift dining room table that overlooked the wood pile and the power tools serving as accessories to the semi-furnished apartment beneath what would one day become "The Zolder." And we were meticulously working to decipher the application forms for our verblijfsvergunningen (residence permits) -- providing us with a critical indicator that we were in for more than just a vacation in Europe.

In that week between -- exactly three years ago from this week -- we witnessed the cosmic alignment of three stars in the simultaneous sale of our house, attainment of our financial support goals, and finalization (and execution) of our travel arrangements. Consequently that "week between" -- exactly three years ago from this week -- represented a dramatic turn in our path that has caused us to navigate not by sight, not by sound, but by spirit.

After three years of adjustment and acclimation, we still feel a bit disoriented at times -- socially awkward, misunderstood, lost. We still miss our native land -- back yards, long drives, Superbowls. We still yearn for the familiarity of our old stomping grounds, our family, our old friends... Three years is a long time to live thousands of kilometers away from the sphere of existence that defined the first quarter-century of my life.

Yet after three years of adjustment and acclimation, we've also learned our way -- gained self-assurance, a sense of direction, a new language. We've learned to love Holland -- gently-misted bicycle rides, evergreen flatlands salted with sheep, three kisses cheek-to-cheek. We've found new familiarity in the hidden corners of Amsterdam, a beautifully blossoming church, an ever-widening and ever-deepening circle of friends.

It's hard to believe that it's been three years. Nevertheless, the fact was confirmed with a roomful of friends in our home this past Wednesday. To commemorate the three-year anniversary of our family's cosmic week, our home group from Zolder50 "surprised" us with party masks, heartfelt words of encouragement, and three home-made cardboard signs, pronouncing "Fijn dat jullie er zijn" ("Glad that you guys are here")... And we could simply utter three words in response -- to our friends and to our God who carried us here -- "Dank u wel" ("Thank you much").

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Leidseplein Latin

I love discovering new and obscure elements to old and familiar places. The city of Amsterdam is full of unusual surprises -- some solemn, like a monument on the Marnixstraat to five young men executed by the Nazi SS in 1945... some surreal, like a random encounter with mythical holiday figures as they pile into their Peugeot... and some silly, like the classical Latin inscription engraved into the marble colonnade overlooking the Leidseplein.

It's such a stately setting -- neo-classical architecture standing sentry to one of the city's classical centers of activity -- that one would simply presume that the serifed inscription towering fifteen meters over the busy passageway is merely some indecipherable relic of antiquity. "E Pluribus Unum" or "Citius Altius Fortius" or "Carpe Diem" or something like that... But I actually took the time to read the inscription on a recent bicycle ride, and I was surprised to see what was actually inscribed on this marble facade:

"Homo Sapiens Non Urinat In Ventum."

I have an extremely limited knowledge of the Latin language, but I was instantly able to piece together enough information to figure out a rough translation (that internet research later confirmed): "Intelligent men don't pee into the wind."

Why this dictum was so painstakinly and permanently chiseled on such a prominent surface, I do not presume to know. Perhaps because Amsterdam seems to have an uncommonly high incidence of public (outdoor) urination... Or perhaps it was meant to reflect the way that the city thrives on its cheeky attitude toward convention and culture... Or perhaps the statement has its roots in some serious historical context... Nevertheless, its dawning was an amusing observation, and I figured I would be remiss if I did not remit the wisdom of this proverb for all to see and know: "Homo Sapiens Non Urinat In Ventum."

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Afterglow of Unpleasantries

I've been told that I'm a natural administrator -- that I have a "gift" when it comes to organization and administration... But I must confess that I'm not so sure.

If I were a natural administrator, shouldn't I enjoy tasks such as organizing my personal library, or balancing a checkbook, or filling out paperwork, or arranging for the logistical elements of an event? Shouldn't I get a natural high from working with numbers, papers, and lists? Wouldn't it seem logical that my gift of administration should manifest itself in pride and joy when it comes to opportunities to administrate?

And yet, I find myself dreading these prototypical "administrative" tasks, often procrastinating until the last possible moment and basically trying to avoid such tedium as much as possible. Consequently, I often feel very unorganized, ineffective in administration, and just plain frustrated by the details of life.

But this week, I've taken the proverbial bull by the proverbial horns.

With a mountain of administrative tasks piled up around me, I decided that this would be my week to dig out. Thus within the last seven days, I've reapplied for residence permits for my family (which involved a trip with kids to the stadsdeelkantoor for a copy of my neighborhood registration, a trip with kids to the photography store for passport photos, and approximately 200 copies of various documents)... I've written a number of employment documents for another staff member with Zolder50 (job description, employment agreeement, letter of appeal for work permit, etc.)... I've filled out a series of expense reports (reimbursements are always nice, in that they put money back in my pocket, but the meticulous process of organizing receipts and tallying numbers tends to drive me crazy!)... I've read through a thick stack of documents (much of them written not just in Dutch, but in institutional Dutch -- like terms of reference for accepting a student intern from a Dutch seminary and legal jargon surrounding government permits)... I've reorganized my home library (including the assembly of some new bookshelves)... I've paid some bills... I've sat in on some organizational meetings... I've cleared my e-mail inbox (well, mostly cleared -- I'm sure everyone knows how that goes)... In general, I've administrated like a true administrator.

And now I find myself in an interesting position. Finally having completed (well, mostly completed) my mountain of administration, I actually find myself basking in the warm afterglow of a week's unpleasantries. That's right -- basking. While I wasn't looking forward to these opportunities for administration, I realize that there is a certain indescribable satisfaction that wells up within me from methodically checking items off my "to do" list. It turns out that my emotions toward a completed list of administrative tasks are, in fact (dare I admit it?), pride and joy.

So what does this mean? How should I interpret my callings, my responsibilities, my virtues, and my vices? Could it be that there may be a gift of administration nestled somewhere within me after all? Or am I simply responding to the latent desire within each human being to be productive? Unfortunately, I cannot muse on these questions for long. I'd better be checking my e-mail...

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Cards and Culture

"C'mon Beebes! What are you so afraid of?" The cultural ritual has already begun. An refined mixture of sarcastic humor, good-natured taunting, pittering banter. We're getting ready to play cards.

Lee and I have already dragged the table in from the other room, sorted out the necessary cards from the deck, and thrown down a challenge to our old friends who are also our new neighbors in the city of Amsterdam. But Mark and Jill are checking her e-mail for news on her father's surgery earlier in the day, and well, Lee and I are getting impatient. We cannot contain ourselves from some trash talk. "Come and get it, kids!" and "We're waaaaiiiting!" and other such meaningless drivel... In fact, it's just a few moments before the Beebes are on their way down the stairs to the waiting table.

Lee and I face each other across a small round table, Mark is on my left, Jill is on my right. My partner starts to shuffle the diminuitive deck and, like generals at Appomattox, we discuss the rules of engagement.

"Ace, no face?" Everyone shakes their heads, as if in disbelief that the question has been asked.

"Stick the dealer?" Yes, of course. Any reasonable game has to keep its pace.

"Partner's best?" No. C'mon. We're playing straight-up -- none of these mamsy-pamsy little rules to muddle a perfectly good evening.

We speak a strange vernacular, defined by our culture, our comradery, our contest. Wyatt Earp and his Wild West posse had their Poker. Ivan Ilyich and the Moscow upper middle class had their Bridge. Heathcliff Huxtable and his East Coast urban intellectuals had their Pinochle. And we working-class American Midwesterners -- whether in the flatlands of Bowling Green or reassembled in the lowlands of Amsterdam -- we have our Euchre.

As the first hand is dealt, we commence with our time-honored cultural ritual. Jill knocks on the table to indicate her pass. I breathe a quick "pass" and point to my left. Mark sighs with a hint of frustration, and says "pass" as if he simply has no other choice. And Lee pauses for a moment -- hand poised over the Queen of Hearts for dramatic effect -- before he scoops the card into his hand and begins our game. We maintain casual conversation, while we play.

"So is Marci home with the kids tonight?" Jill asks.

"Yeah," I respond. "That's how it goes with two little ones." We practice economy of words, according to the customs of our people -- an earthy, practical, plain breed of Americans known for industriousness, quiet-contentiousness, stick-to-it-iveness. We Ohioans are not known for our charm, grace, or eloquence -- not naturally given to passionate discourse or thoughtful soliloquies. Our only fanatacism tends to be for our sports. And the competitive nature of Euchre happens to tiptoe the line between social interaction and sports. So we like our Euchre.

"Spades for my partner!" I announce. Of course, I don't know what Lee holds in his hand -- but this is how I've always ordered up Spades. It is one of a thousand rituals of the game that have been committed to unconscious habit. Grumbling about being "four-suited." Groaning upon discovery of the cards that have been "buried" in the "kitty." Hawking each other in constant vigilence against "re-negging." Chiding each other proverbially, "turn down a bower, and you'll lose for an hour." This happens to be the one form of communication where we can speak a private language inintelligible to our Amsterdammer friends (who are typically more fluent in English than a crowd of American high-schoolers).

Lee and I happen to be getting the good cards tonight. Before long, we are up by six. And we pour it on heavy for our old friends who have just recently followed our eastward migration from Ohio to Holland by approximately three years.

"You know, it's tough when you move to a new place," Lee deadpans.

"Yeah," I say. "We've elevated our game to a whole new level here in Amsterdam."

"It'll probably take awhile to catch on," Lee offers in mock reassurance.

"I feel real bad for you guys. My heart is welling up with sorrow for what you're going through right now," I say.

Mark and Jill take their whooping honorably. We end up winning the game 10-1, but our friends are gracious in defeat -- only the minimum amount of whining about bad cards and such. I appreciate them for their manner. Lee and I try not to be too gleeful in victory, but we cannot avoid the release of our satisfaction. And in the end, our satisfaction comes back to bite us. We lose the second game, 10-3.

I ask the obvious question: "So I suppose we should play a rubber match now, huh?"

"Or... we could all go home happy," says Mark. An even split for the night is not a bad idea.

"That works for me," Lee says.

"Yup. Me too," replies Jill.

"Yeah, sure," I say. "I wouldn't mind getting home to bed." It is, after all, eleven o'clock.

As I ride home on my bicycle -- past the Leidseplein, past the lines of gothic youth waiting to get into the Paradiso, past the majestic towers of the Rijksmuseum -- I feel a sense of resonance and realization. Across the cultures, I reconnected with my culture. The Midwest was brought to the middle of Amsterdam, and I communed with my people this evening. The gentle sarcasm, humble self-deprecation, playful competition, practical passivity... I could not wish for more than a game of Euchre with old friends. The feeling of a king in his castle. The reminder that home is where the heart is.

And I'm glad to realize that the King of Hearts is tucked safely away in the hand of my partner, ready to serve as a "stopper" -- maybe even to force a "Euchre" of my worthy opponents.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Local Tourist

I always feel like such a schmuck when I pull out the camera at a social occasion with the classic proclamation, "Everyone get together for a group picture!" Like the Asian tourists littering the bicycle paths in front of the Rijksmuseum, taking photos of my friends often feels like an obstruction, an interruption, an annoyance. And let's face it: there's nothing worse than being a tourist in your own neighborhood -- in your own home!

But I'm always glad after I've done it.

The images above were taken yesterday evening, at our home group's weekly gathering. When I first suggested that we take advantage of an opportunity for a group picture, everyone groaned and rolled their eyes and complained about having a bad hair day and such. However, we persisted with the idea, took a few short moments to get a series of shots (serious, silly, and smiles), and the gezellige sfeer was not ruined by the interruption. We went on to laugh, to chat, and to smile at the first viewings of the new group pictures. And in the end, we're glad for these captured moments that can be visually re-lived.

So I persist in my local tourism... And I don't care if I'm a schmuck.

Monday, January 16, 2006

sign of the times

Elliot was eating his breakfast, reading his Dr. Seuss, humming gently to himself -- when he suddenly straightened up, turned his head sharply to the side, and peered intently out the window through the crack in the blinds. The sharp intake of breath further indicated that he had spotted something unusual, like a rare tropical bird or possibly a poor neighbor in the process of being mugged. It was a few moments before he could transmit his astonishment into words -- but raising his finger toward the skies above the apartments on the opposite side of the street, he gasped: "Daddy! I see the sun!"

It must be winter in Amsterdam. What a rare and welcome sight the sun can be -- Apollo riding his chariot back through unfamiliar territory above the land of the low skies.

Sunday, January 15, 2006


Do you want to know what it means to be excellent? Do you understand what it takes to be competant, complete, professional? Excellence is epitomized in the managers at the fast food restaurants near the Leidseplein. I'm thinking of two women in particular...

Unfortunately, I must confess that I eat fast food more than I should. Probably once or twice a week, I find myself standing in line at the McDonald's or Burger King between meetings at the Zolder. And I've learned a valuable lesson in how to shorten the time in line, by choosing wisely the person who will be taking my order. I've discovered a "sure bet" in each location.

At the McDonald's, I always try to get in the line of the short, overweight Indian woman with the nose-ring and the reading glasses. Her raven hair pulled back smartly, she hovers behind the counter like a helicopter, darting back and forth between the cash register and the french fry staging area, the drink machine, the burger shoot. She is confident and in-control. She takes orders quickly and efficiently -- no time for gabbing, yet not impolite. She makes it clear that her register is not the place for a poor tourist to practice his Dutch, and even now that my Dutch has become pretty good she can still perceive my accent immediately and she involuntary switches to English. There are a thousand ways that she has polished her professionalism perfectly, and I just know that under any given circumstances, her line is almost always faster. I've learned that even if her line is two people longer than any of the others, my McDonaldian muse is worth the wait.

At the Burger King, I scan for the middle-aged Indonesian woman as I walk from the door to the line for ordering. She wears a black BK visor and dark-rimmed eyeglasses as she stands as field general for the crew. She may have to leave her register on multiple occasions, to help one of her co-workers void an item or to mop up a spilled milkshake or to restock change in one of the other registers -- but even so, her line is almost always the fastest. I believe she's been there every single time I've ever been in the establishment, and she somehow manages to maintain an unbelievable level of efficiency with an eternal smile on her face. She is the consumate professional, and I've come to realize that I'd be a fool to waste my time with anyone else at the Burger King overlooking the Leidseplein.

Technically speaking, these two women work low-prestige, service-economy jobs for grimy franchise locations of two soulless mega-corporations. Yet they embrace their jobs with such excellence and professionalism that I cannot help but admire them as role models. I'm ashamed to confess that I so often despise the aspects of my job that lack intrigue, that dredge up feelings of dread, that give me no glory... I'm ashamed to confess that I so often turn the other direction when the floor needs to be mopped, or when my co-worker runs out of change... I'm ashamed to confess that I so often drag my feet when I'm feeling tired or annoyed... And I am a church leader! I'm supposed to be urging people to follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ... And yet I fear that people could learn more about excellence, competance, and professionalism by following the fast food managers instead.

So I life my paper cup of cola in a toast to the lady leaders of Leidseplein. I offer my praise and my orders for their ears only. And I promise myself to remember their example as I seek to live out my calling in Amsterdam, as they live out theirs.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ocean Breeze Soap

Lest anyone fall into the trap of thinking that I'm some sort of highbrow intellectualist, drawing inspiration and encouragement only from haute-couture prize-winning literature and independent international films -- let me confess my fondness for the Muppets.

From early childhood, the Muppets have been a formative voice in my perception of the world, my sense of humor, and my understanding what makes people tick. This morning, I watched a bit of "The Muppets Take Manhattan" with my children and was again reminded of the brilliance and poignancy of the Muppets. Around the half-way point of the film, I caught myself reveling in what may be one of my all-time favorite scenes.

Kermit the Frog has just emerged from the hospital, following treatment for a tragic accident that left him with amnesia -- causing him to forget his friends, his dreams, and his hopes for the successful debut of a new Broadway musical -- when he comes upon a group of fellow amphibians in an office building... [certainly, this is the stuff of classical film, is it not?]... In this chance encounter, the three frogs from the marketing firm -- Gill, Bill, and Jill -- ask Kermit (who, not able to recall his true identity, spontaneously elects to go by the name of "Phil") for the opinion of the "average frog on the street" regarding an advertising slogan that they've been working on for Ocean Breeze Soap:

"Ocean Breeze Soap: For people who don't want to stink."

When Kermit/Phil responds with disapproval, they try a secondary proposal:

"Ocean Breeze Soap is just like going on an ocean cruise, except there's no boat and you don't actually go anywhere."

Again, Kermit/Phil suggests that the proposed slogan is less than ideal. But he counters with a question; "Have you thought of something simple, like..."

"Ocean Breeze Soap will get you clean."

Of course, the other three frogs love it, and they end up offering him a job with their marketing firm, and sales of Ocean Breeze Soap go through the roof, and Kermit/Phil once again finds a group of friends and a sense of purpose [again, with classical scripting like this, I don't know how "The Muppets Take Manhattan" was overlooked in the nominations for the Academy Awards that year]... It's a funny scene, and it propels the plot of the movie (while Miss Piggy and Fozzy and the gang build to the climax of their own story, searching madly for Kermit as their Broadway show is about to take the stage). But in all honesty -- as I've so often discovered -- there is seriously something to be learned from the Muppets.

How often do I respond to the questions my children are asking with complex (or oversimplified) explanations -- when all I need to do is directly answer their questions ("you need to wash your hands after you use the toilet because it will get you clean")? How often do I try to paint a colorful picture of why it's such a glamorous adventure to follow Jesus -- when all I need to do is directly answer the questions that seekers seek ("you need Jesus because your life is a mess, and he will get you clean")? How often do I trouble myself with precisely how to express a thought to my wife, or to my co-workers, or to the people who read my blog -- when all I need to do is directly share my heart ("I need to tell you how I'm feeling, so we can get ourselves clean")? It's an interesting dynamic to consider...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Erosion of History

Have you ever stopped to consider the number of lives that have overlapped the routines, roles, and routes of the lives that we currently lead on earth? Perhaps it's a bit of a bizarre thought -- but I sometimes wonder how people have been born, how many people who have had their hearts broken, how many people who have conceived babies, who have bled, or who have died in a given geographic point or under a given set of circumstances... those same places and circustances in which I find myself every day.

Especially in a city as old as Amsterdam, layered with over 800 years of civilization, I find it fascinating to consider the points of intersection among the millions of lives that have coursed throughout the city, throughout the course of history. It's not the kind of thing that preoccupies my thought processes for hours at a time, or that even passes through my mind on a daily basis. But when one considers the probabilities in a city of the size and age of Amsterdam, it's virtually a statistical certainty that every square meter of the old city holds a meaningful memory -- the story of a milestone in someone's life... And it's kind of crazy to think about the stories the stones could tell...

Almost every day, I ride my bicycle down the Marnixstraat just west of the Leidseplein. It's a pretty major thoroughfare, and it happens to run between the place where I live and the place where I work and worship, so this section of the Marnixstraat is kind of just a standard part of my routine. I don't think much about it, and it's doubtful that any of the vast throng of people pumping through this artery of the living city consider the setting at all on their way to shopping, parties, movies, or restaurants. But every day, as I ride my bicycle down the Marnixstraat just west of the Leidseplein, I am watched by a silent figure -- a solitary stranger gazing down upon the Marnixstraat with cold green eyes. And when I realize this, I feel the breath of history on my neck.

A small copper statue, about the size of a Barbie doll, stands atop a long pillar, between the Nieuw de la Mar theater and the American Hotel -- his left arm raised curiously, as if asking a question to all who would pass by. Beneath the pillar, below waist-level, a faded stone enscription tells the story of this square meter:

"On this spot, on 6 January 1945, five Dutch men were executed by the German occupying forces in retaliation for a display of national patriotism which was carried out on this same spot" (original text in Dutch; my translation).

And when I stop to read this enscription and look at this statue, I cannot believe how mundane this strip of sidewalk has become. People walk by without a second glance, chatting on a mobile telephone, flirting and laughing, cursing the wind and the rain from beneath an umbrella or hood. There is no recognition or realization of what this place meant to five young lives, to five families, to a nation embroiled in a bitter war. History is swallowed up in the routine of daily life. Even the limestone foundation stone has begun to loose its memory, as the words of the marker become harder and harder to make out.

Indeed, our lives are small and short. The expanse of our existence is merely incidental to the history of the world. Our most meaningful landmarks eventually become a blank canvas for someone else's painting. Such a realization can be comforting, or it can be agonizing... Which is it for you?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Mr. Blue's Happiness Quiz

I've finished with Garrison Keillor's latest book, "Love Me," and I enjoyed it very much. It was definitely irreverant at times, and occasionally downright crass, but it was well-written with a good storyline. The author has a great sense of humor -- with an expert blend between Midwestern sensibility and big-city flair -- and he makes some interesting observations on life.

In this vein, I thought I would post an amusing section of the book -- written into the story as a favorite printing of a Dear Abby type advice column (the advice columnist is Mr. Blue, and the favorite printing is his "Happiness Quiz"). Like the rest of the book, it's definitely irreverant (and even crass)... but it's also hilarious, and it offers some meaningful insights on life...

Read the following ten items and circle the ones that apply to you.

1. My girlfriend is Born Again and won't remove her clothing but she will kiss me until I am climbing the wall and whining like a dog.

2. I've been dating Bob for eighteen years and he is still "not sure" about us and my heart is in a twist.

3. My cat died one year ago last Wednesday and I still feel emotionally shipwrecked, and my friends are sick of hearing about it, and after ten years of sobriety, I'm back on the joy juice again.

4. My wife is God's Apostle on Earth and the Voice of Authority on every subject and corrects everything I do or say. She is like a horsefly in my life, I go sit in the car for a little peace and quiet. But it's January and the temperature outside is twenty below. Below zero. We live in a suburb of Duluth. I moved to this godforsaken place as a favor to St. Judy so she could be close to her family. When I remark on the cold, she says, "What's your problem?" Everyone up here is like that. I live in a dark sh**hole of suffering.

5. I am the child of affluent agnostic liberals who gave me no sense of values whatsoever and their moral relativism has led me into a life of meaningless sex and addiction to crack cocaine and sometimes I drive through the ghetto in search of some boojie. I wrote a book about it and then my computer was stolen, containing my entire book manuscript and I am devastated, numb with horror, and my mind is a blank.

6. I have everything I ever wanted, a good family, a showplace of a home, hundreds of friends, satisfying volunteer opportunities, and yet I am taking Percodan, Paxil, Xanax, Diloxil, and some mellow yellows now and then, and I also like to shoot horse.

7. I am a candidate for public office.

8. I am on the run from the law, living in paranoia and fear and also having an identity crisis. I am a Hell's Angel on the outside, but on the inside I'm a little boy who goes to bed with Tigger and Piglet and Roo. What if I am arrested and the police open up my saddlebags and see my stuffed animals and assume that I have drugs stashed inside and so they rip my babies to pieces? I will be devastated.

9. I am the hostage of my conservative upbringing in the snake pit of Baptist theological back stabbing, haunted by guilt, unable to break loose and enjoy life and express the free-spirited "party girl" side of me. I met a man in an Internet chat room and in two weeks he has become my world but I'm afraid to meet him for fear he cannot accept my bovine personality and the black leather Bible with study helps and concordance that I carry everywhere I go.

10. I am lying, semi-sensible, in a tiny cubicle in a geezer warehouse, drugs flowing through an IV in my arm and mushy music dripping from the ceiling. I am full of bitter rage and too weak to even swing my legs over the side of the bed. But I have a loaded pistol under my pillow, which I intend to use to win my escape. Where to go, I don't know.

Circle the items that apply to you. Circle any that ring a chord, even if not accurate in every jot or tittle. Face up to what's really going on in your life. Be honest.

If you circled fewer that four (4) items, you're doing pretty darn good. If you circled two (2) or fewer, I'd say you're definitely happy. If you circled none, I'd call you a big fat liar.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


I like January. Christmas is put away and the cold air wakes a man up and kills off delusions of grandeur.

I enjoy this quote, drawn from the Garrison Keillor book, "Love Me," which I am currently reading. I appreciate the rhythm of the words -- both in this particular quote and throughout the novel. I savor the story's succinct language and the vivid word pictures... But that's not to say that my admiration for the novel transfers to agreement with the sentiments expressed within the above quote. The fact is that I really don't like January all that much. The roadside Christmas tree skeletons and the sense of emptiness in the house actually tend to depress me. And, honestly, I have no intent or desire to kill off any grandeur I can get -- whether it be delusional or otherwise.

As it turns out, "Love Me" has stirred up a docket of dreams (and delusions) within me. Over the years, I've found that any well-crafted piece of writing tends to draw me like a siren song, to yearn for originality, to amplify my own voice, to create something meaningful... Yet because this story also happens to center around a Midwesterner with aspirations for literary greatness, I feel an extra sense of empathy and encouragement to dream about my own life.

A humorous and poignant scene from the book involves the main character, Larry Wyler, encountering a moment of realization over a backyard barbecue with one of his old college acquaintances, Frank Frisbie. In the course of their conversation, Frank makes a comment that catches Larry off-guard and awakens his dormant desires for authorial success:

"I've been busy writing a book," (Frank) said. "I should send you a copy." He let those words hang in the air for a long minute, during which I did not say, "You? Write a book? You couldn't write enough to fill a book of matches!"

"Who's publishing it?" I said, expecting to hear The Wisteria Press or Gerbil Books or The Fund for the Verbally Handicapped.

"Random House," he said.

He said this the way you'd say "Four-fifteen," if someone asked you what time it is.

I hadn't seen the guy in years. I wanted to choke him. I wanted to give him a swift kick where the sun don't shine. "That's great," I said. I wanted him to die a natural death but someplace where I could watch. "When?" I said. "In the fall," he said. "Terrific." He sent me a copy, of course. Signed, "To Larry, my friend and comrade." I wanted him to choke on a bratwurst and fall down and hit his head so that he'd be in a wheelchair, steering it with a pencil between his teeth, and I could do a benefit for him, to raise money to pay for his colostomy, and he'd come up on stage to thank me, and sort of gurgle deep in his throat, and we'd be photographed together for the newspaper...

The humor of a brooding man is brilliant. As Larry takes time to process the events, he realizes that his emotional response is not motivated by jealousy so much as it is by surprise:

Frank is a pleasant guy, basically a suck-up and a loser but not evil or anything, just one more dust bunny under the bed of life, and here he had gone and written a novel. This was a shock. Like seeing Ray Charles sink nine out of ten free throws...

Eventually, Larry's surprise gives way to reflection, and the young author experiences an epiphany:

The thought that a pea brain could write a successful book was, to me, the handwriting on the wall and it said: GET BUSY.

To be honest, this thought has occurred to me as well. Why not write a book? I've discovered that I am energized by the act of writing. Forming words and sentences and paragraphs and pages has become a means of self-expression and self-realization. I feel more balanced after I've been able to effectively transfer an emotion or a concept into language. Thus, I actually write primarily for myself; only secondarily for others. But even so -- why not write a book?

I can't help but feel that I'm daydreaming much in the way that a starry-eyed teen-aged thespian pines for stardom on Hollywood's silver screens... the way that a garage guitarist envisions himself as a world-touring rock star... the way a skinny high-school freshman practices with hopes of playing professional basketball one day... Nevertheless, I sense that if I do not allow myself to daydream -- and if I do not give myself a chance to succeed (or fail) -- a part of me will die, and I will mourn the loss.

So I'm going to go for some casting sessions. I'm going to peddle my album to the record labels. I'm signing my letter of intent. And let the world know: I'm getting busy.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

January 8, 1956 - January 8, 2006

They were convinced that Sunday, January 8, was going to be the day... And, in a sense, it was.

Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint, and Roger Youderian -- an idealistic band of young men -- had been planning, praying, and preparing for months to make contact with a violent tribe of natives deep in the jungles of Ecuador. Driven by a desire to share the story of Jesus with this Stone Age society that had been cut off from the rest of civilization for thousands of years, they had deliberately disregarded the dangers (well-documented by a trail of blood through surrounding tribes and foreigners who had dared set foot in "Auca" territory) and developed a tenuous relationship with these curious people. Systematic distance interaction, gift exhanges, and a breathless first encounter had left the men hopeful. And on that day, early in 1956, it seemed that face-to-face contact with the "Aucas" (Quechua for "naked savages") was imminent. Exactly fifty years ago, this morning, the five young missionaries woke up with an expectation of something revolutionary.

And exactly fifty years ago, this morning, the five young missionaries were violently murdered by their jungle "friends," who revolted against them in fear and confusion. It's difficult to ascertain everything that happened on that January morning, but the only certainty of the day was that five corpses were left floating in the waters of the Curaray.

They were five men who were my age, with wives the age of my wife, and with kids the age of my kids. Like me, each one of the "Auca martyrs" was an American idealist, living "like a stranger in a foreign country... looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God." And I cannot help but be impacted by their story. Fifty years ago today, Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint, and Roger Youderian were rudely thrown off a sandbar in the Amazonian rainforest and consequently escorted into the immediate presence of the Living God; and in so doing, a process was begun which brought the light of the Gospel to a very dark place and revolutionized an entire society in South America.

I've long been inspired by the story of these men, recorded in the book, “Through Gates of Splendor,” by Elisabeth Elliot (widow of Jim Elliot). It only feels appropriate to remember them on this Sunday, January 8, 2006 -- the fiftieth anniversary of that fateful day in Ecuador -- and reconsider the words of Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Friday, January 06, 2006

Gratuitous Olivia Photograph

I haven't posted anything for a few days; furthermore, I realize that many of my recent posts have not been the happiest (unless you consider dead pigeons and personal neuroses to be part of the sunny side of life)... Thus, nothing serves as the antidote to these situations quite like a recent photograph of my beautiful daughter, Olivia.

It's hard to believe that it's been a whole month since Olivia's operation to remove the hemangioma from her forehead, but she's been doing amazingly well (as you can see from the picture). The doctors have told us that we're basically finished with the treatment process, and all we have to do is check back in at the end of the year to see how everything ends up. We're very pleased that everything has turned out so well...

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Washingtonian Complex

"What did you do for New Year's?" Amsterdammers ask this question with an expectation of wild stories dripping with champagne, basking in the glow of dazzlingly dangerous fireworks, squeezing through the crowds on the city squares... And indeed, most Amsterdammers (and most visitors to Amsterdam) can share such tales involving varying degrees of adventure.

But do you know what I did for New Year's Eve this year? I scarfed down a couple of olliebollen in between busy errands and quick conversations concluding a couple crazy days of conference. Then, around 11:30, I rode my bicycle home at a brisk pace, dodging bottle rockets as best I could, arriving home to a dark and quiet house. My dear, sweet wife was semi-conscious, in bed, suffering from the effects of a rampant flu bug; and my two children were sleeping peacefully, even through the rising din of snaps, crackles, and pops on the streets outside. As the stroke of midnight approached, I roused my son from a deep sleep, wrapped him up in a thick blanket, and carried him out to the sidewalk in front of our apartment where we gazed admiringly at the pyrotechnics on our street. But when the noisy explosions of a neighbors' fireworks shattered the sense of sleepy wonder in Elliot's eyes, we hurried back inside where it was safer, warmer, quieter, and we watched for a little bit longer. I gave Marci a peck on the cheek (no passionate smooching when influenza is involved) and tucked Elliot back into bed. Then I took care of some dirty dishes that had accumulated in the kitchen sink, and I was in bed by 12:30... Not much in the way of a classic New Year's adventure in Amsterdam. But there you have it.

The thing is... my New Year's Eve experience was not an isolated scenario. In fact, I feel that I often find myself in such situations -- seemingly on the outside, looking in at others having fun. And for whatever reason, the feeling has been especially pronounced over the last month or so... I'm doing dishes, while the dinner guests glory in each others' company... I'm folding laundry while the "important people" are having high-level strategic conversations... I'm working fourteen hour days while my best friends enjoy in-depth conversation with famous strangers... I'm "holding down the fort" so others can ride off to intrigue and adventure... And of course, I'm speaking with a sense of hyperbole and overstatement. But the truth is that I sometimes feel that my life simply serves as a frame for other people's masterpieces...

I can strongly identify with the character of George Bailey, from the classic film, "It's a Wonderful Life." Stuck in Bedford Falls, looking silly serving as a watchdog for air raids in middle America, while brother Harry pilots a fighter plane to glory and heroism in the War overseas... packing away the massive traveling case, while Sam Wainwright discovers wealth and notoreity on the East Coast... lending away every last penny saved for a fantastic world-wide honeymoon to keep the ol' Building & Loan running through dark days in Bedford Falls... Of course, George Bailey's life is a wonderful life -- but fact of the matter is that George Bailey's life often feels like stuffing dreams and desires to make way for others' needs. And honestly, that's the way that I feel sometimes.

At other times -- weaker moments -- my thought patterns put me more in alignment with the character of George Costanza, from the 1990s American situation comedy, "Seinfeld." Constantly plagued by a mild sense of paranoia, George was convinced that the world was against him. He was selfish, neurotic, and easily agitated. Short, overweight, balding, and cranky, George played a critical role in the television show -- often drawing huge laughs -- but the laughter were more often at his expense than to his credit. Clearly, Jerry and Elaine and Kramer all enjoyed having George as a friend -- as we all enjoy people like that in our lives -- but nobody would have wanted to be George Costanza. Because nobody wants to selfish, neurotic, easily agitated, or paranoid. But like it or not, I often find myself identifying with the character of George Costanza, just as I often find myself identifying with George Bailey.

It just seems like there is a certain pattern of person that persists throughout various periods of history, throughout various cultures -- a sort of personality archetype -- with which I easily empathize. Even from antiquity, I can identify with people who suffer from an overdeveloped sense of duty, control, and entrapment. The Bible describes Martha of Bethany in many ways that parallel my more modern comparisons. Luke 10:38-42 records how Martha hosted a reception for Jesus, in which she quickly became distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. In a moment of frustration, she tries to get her guest of honor to reprimand Mary (her sister) for leaving her to do all the work by herself. But instead, Jesus reprimands Martha saying, "My dear Martha, you are so upset over all these details! There is really only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it -- and I won't take it away from her." As I read such words, I can feel a crimson flush burning my own cheeks, as I share Martha's frustrations and shames...

I've come to realize that George Bailey, George Costanza, Martha of Bethany, and I all share a psychological condition designated as a "Washingtonian Complex."

Truthfully, this diagnosis involves the introduction of a new term to the vernacular of popular psychology (a rather precocious move for someone like me, who has never studied clinical psychology). But perhaps you've heard terminology such as a "Napoleonic Complex," or an "Oedipus Complex," or an "Inferiority Complex"... You know, a subconscious set of behaviors that defines your patterns of thinking, feeling, and interacting with the world around you. Thus in an effort to recognize one of my own neuroses (and believe me, there are many), I think that I should be labeled with a "Washingtonian Complex" -- that is, an overdeveloped sense of identification with the "George"s and "Martha"s of the world. And well, because the first President and First Lady of the United States of America happened to be named George and Martha Washington -- and because my lack of pyschological credentials (and corresponding lack of accountability to the psychological scientific community) allow me to take great liberty with the naming of psychological complices -- I have coined the term "Washingtonian Complex." As a person with this condition, I suffer from an extreme sense of responsibility (to the point of enshaklement), a pronounced tendency toward feelings of inadequacy and jealousy (towards those living a more "privileged" existence), and a heightened sense martyrdom and self-sacrifice (that is actually more typically an attempt at subversive self-glorification)... And I think that every George or Martha in the world knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Although I'm not proud of my Washingtonian Complex, I recognize it in an attempt to neutralize the thought pattern and call myself out to greater caution and accountability. I will likely struggle with recurring lapses into such emotions for the rest of my life. Yet like George Costanza, I will seek to surround myself with other friends who can balance me out. Like Martha of Bethany, I will seek to develop a greater intuition on when to follow Jesus' example to serve by washing others' feet and when to simply sit at Jesus' feet. And like George Bailey, I will seek to remember that, indeed, it's a wonderful life.