Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Songbird in a Snowstorm

I don't know whether to call them drops or flakes. Incredibly cold, massive raindrops or incredibly wet, penetrating snowflakes... Whatever they are, they sting like the dickens -- chilling me to the bone. And I resent them on my pre-dawn bicycle trek through the icy corridors of central Amsterdam.

The city has come a long way since the darkest days of winter. The hours of graylight have been methodically stretching and strenghtening from day to day, like an old man recovering from hip surgery. The stubby green fingers of crocuses and daffodils are slowly clawing their way out from the flower boxes in the neighborhood. Even the tenuous strains of pioneering songbirds have been heard in the pre-dawn stillness of recent weeks. Spring is coming. Spring is coming...

Of course, you wouldn't know it -- judging from the crust of wintry precipation on my jacket, the numbed digits of my soaked extremities, the storm of white, wet locusts showering down through the orbs of amber-colored streetlights... But spring is coming.

I'm reminded by the unlikely voice of a trusted friend: a songbird who shouts for the joy of what is to come, instead of our present reality. Even in the midst of a snowstorm, in the sub-freezing chill of a February morning, the songbird instinctively reiterates his message of hope. And I smile at the reminder.

Spring is coming.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Ideologology: the Study of Ideologies

Does anyone else think that speed skaters look like superheroes?

Perhaps I make too much of the Olympics, and of course it's foolish to assign symbolism and significance to a sporting event... But something within me stirs at the collision of cultures that takes place during international sports competitions. I have loyalties to countries like the United States (land of my birth), the Netherlands (land of my residence), Sweden and Norway (lands of my ancestry) -- and aversions to countries like Russia or China (old remnants of my Cold War era upbringing)... But beyond simple nationalism, I've learned that I can observe much in the vices, virtues, and general points of contrast between different cultures represented in the Olympic games.

People in the Netherlands certainly admire their speed-skating superheroes. The country pours almost all of its time, money and attention into long-track skating competitions during the Winter Olympics. And yet, it wasn't until yesterday (third-from-the-last day of competition) that the Dutch men delivered their first gold medal, in the 10K. And indeed, Bob de Jong instantly became a national hero (and not just because his skin-tight racing suit made him vaguely resemble Spiderman or the Flash). It was a joyous victory for the Oranje, and I found myself celebrating with everyone else here in the Netherlands -- in spite of the fact that the primary competition for the gold medal in the 10K speed skating event (as with the majority of the speed skating events) had been an American.

The truth is that I've felt embarrassed by my countrymen in the dark blue racing suits, and I can't help but wonder what America thinks of its spandex warriors? I don't know how much my attitudes reflect a Dutch media bias (although I get more of my information through American news sources on the internet)... or how much I've personally changed some of my cultural filters (weeding out some of the American competitive ruthlessness)... or how much some of the American skaters are just immature and ignoble icons for the world of sporting.

Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis have made a sad spectacle of themselves with their feuding fanatics of the last couple weeks. They've displayed such egotism and poor sportsmanship that it's a shame they grab attention as some of the leading medalists of the last two weeks. I've been particularly astonished by Hedrick, who bubbles arrogance and self-centered rhetoric from every orifice... I feel a true sense of culture shock, even with my own countryman. And this makes me sad. Joey Cheek has saved some face for the USA, with his humble attitude, gracious smile, and generous heart to use his fifteen minutes of fame for something beyond him. But I've observed a general disconnect from me and my American roots -- at least in regard to the skating schmucks and hot-shot skiing playboys of the US of A.

So ground me. Remind me of America's finer points. Or at least reassure me that you are equally ashamed of what's become of our superheroes...

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Help and Support

I love my home group. I really do.

It seems that a home group is often the best place -- and sometimes the only place -- where true community is lived out, and where we can fulfill the New Command to love each other as Jesus loves us. In short, a home group is meant to be a circle of friends helping each other and supporting each other as we walk together down the road of life.

I guess I just wouldn't typically expect these dear friends of mine to be helping to feed my addictions and supporting my bad habits.

But seriously, the group came up with an awesome surprise for my birthday (26 February) by overwhelming me with indulgence for two of my recent obsessions. Within the past couple of weeks, I had shared with the group how I can sometimes border on addictive / obsessive-compulsive behavior with things like checking the statistics on my blog's StatCounter or enjoying a batch of popcorn while watching television to unwind at the end of a stressful day... So for my birthday, I was treated with seven individually-wrapped packages of popcorn and a secret campaign to provide me with a record number of hits for my blog (yesterday brought in 259 page loads!). It was a funny concept and brilliantly executed.

So thank you Anne, Elliot, Geert Jan, Jeroen, Jetske, Kor, Marci, Marco, Maria, Maurius, Meghan, Olivia, Sander, Serges, Tanya, Vera, and Vera -- for making my birthday (and Anne's, and Neil's) special. I love you all.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


I've discovered that people in Amsterdam do not have shadows. Even in the light of mid-day. Even in the wide open spaces of the city... That presumedly perpetual sidewalk companion, typically adhered to the soles of our feet, is conspicuously absent from my perimeter -- and from that of every passing pedestrian or bicyclist. And as far as I can see, no one in Amsterdam has a shadow. At least not in February.

It's not the kind of thing that one typically notices. In fact, I don't believe the realization had ever dawned on me prior to yesterday morning. I was astonished by the epiphany, however, and for the rest of the day I found myself staring out the window and wondering at the lack of shadows on the busy sidewalks of Amsterdam -- almost as if some Hollywood post-production studio had been hired to digitally erase the image of the shadows from the cityscape, to make some kind of subtle point that could be pointed out on the DVD commentary.

Of course, the explanation is simple and scientific -- though I dare not attempt it. All I need to know is that during the long, slow, upward climb toward spring, Amsterdam is washed with a flat, filtered, gray sunlight that brings neither shine nor shade... And I can't help but feel there is a symbolism in this -- even if I can't completely identify it or put words to what it is. A world without shadows would seem to be a good thing... But I'm not so sure I like it.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Echte Nederland

I love exploring new parts of the Netherlands and coming to a deeper understanding of the people and places that provide the texture and meaning for my adopted homeland. Over the past weekend, our family had an unique opportunity to discover previously unknown aspects of the Netherlands with our good friend Marco.

We started from our home in Amsterdam Oost at one o'clock in the afternoon on Saturday, dressed in our finest for a wedding just southwest of Amsterdam's city limits, in a small village called Badhoevedorp. Luka and Elisa, some friends who had once been in a Zolder50 home group together with us, were getting married (which is kind of crazy, because they actually met in our home group -- meaning that our family has actually been in the Netherlands long enough now to have founded a home group, developed some history together, provided a place for Luka and Elisa to hook up, and actually see them move out of Amsterdam and get married!). As it so happened, the occasion also happened to be the first Christian wedding ceremony that any of us (including Marco) had ever experienced in Holland. The bells tolling from the high church tower... the bride and groom entering the church together... the congregation standing for parts of the service while the couple sat in the front... church deacons taking a collection in velvet bags half-way through the ceremony... enjoying a short, informal reception in the church lobby after the ceremony... joining the rest of the wedding guests to sing a creatively crafted version of Luka and Elisa's story from the past couple years... As with so many parts of our lives in Amsterdam, where multiple cultures and sub-cultures meet and mix, it's hard to know what was "traditional Dutch culture," what was "traditional Dutch Christian culture," and what was uniquely Luka and Elisa -- but at any rate, their wedding was an interesting experience that we were honored to share with them.

Following the wedding, then, our family had the special opportunity to travel with Marco to his hometown of Monnickendam, beyond the opposite (northeast) side of Amsterdam from Badhoevedorp. With Marco serving as our chauffeur, it was amazing to see how quickly the city melted into the wide-skied flatlands of the Waterland region of Noord Holland. Swans flecked the rolling green landscape and mirrored canals cut through the fields to reflect the shifting gray skies above. It was absolutely beautiful. And quiet. Marco led us on a walking tour through old Monnickendam, still and reverant as an open-air cathedral in the pre-twilight hours of Saturday afternoon. We gazed admiringly upon the ancient churches and the historic waterfront while Marco told us the stories of his city... Later, we returned to the car and drove along the dijk toward Marken. Vast expanses of glassy water made the sky seem impossibly large, and we were in awe to discover this "new" part of Holland, just a short distance across the IJsselmeer from Amsterdam. The day of discovery was capped with a delightful dinner, together with Marco's parents, in their warm and welcoming home. Such a gezellig meal from such hospitible hosts made us feel like we were visiting our own relatives (they even had a great box of old toys that Elliot and Olivia loved, just like at Oma and Opa's house in America!). The meal that we shared was echte Nederlandse food as well: smoked eel, ossenworst on a Volendamse "flip"... It was a wonderful ending to a wonderful day.

Now I just have to read the Asterix and Obelix comic books that Marco loaned to me...

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Would you believe that I have an intern? A young man named Kor, from the Christelijke Hogeschool Ede, is actually serving as a full-time intern with Zolder50 for two months, as a part of his Godsdienst Pastoraal Werk training. It's a pretty interesting experience.

To be honest, I feel like a poser much of the time. The notion of me being a legitimate "church leader" with a real seminary student shadowing my everyday interactions feels fantastic and fanciful -- like my four-year-old son pretending to be a firefighter or a bumblebee. Granted, even the negative voices in my head concede that the experience may be more or less benign -- I don't worry about leaving any negative effect on the guy -- but I find myself questioning if or which positive lessons I might be able to affect during our eight weeks together... I find it incredibly ironic that the Dutch word for "internship" is "stage."

Kor hasn't seemed to notice, though. He seems genuinely pleased with the opportunity to learn in the context of Zolder50, and he tells me that the experience has already been immensely beneficial. He's sat in on strategic discussions about the worship aspect of Zolder50. He's blended in with two different home groups, to get a deeper sense of the community aspect of our church. He's observed the operational outworkings of coaching sessions with various members of our staff team. He's working to help us pull off a neighborhood outreach, bringing the ministry aspect of Zolder50 to bear on a senior citizens' center that's just around the corner. And he's even taking a crack at some small-scale teaching and Bible instruction. All in all, it seems like Kor is getting a fairly well-rounded perspective on church leadership, and he's learning a lot.

The truth is that I'm learning a lot through mentoring Kor as well.

I'm getting a fresh look at our church community, through the eyes of an inquisitive "outsider." I'm learning how to better describe and explain the various elements of our core beliefs, casual customs, and church culture in general. I'm learning how to connect with and envision young Dutch Christians for the task of expanding God's Kingdom in the Netherlands... And I'm learning that perhaps I'm not such a poser after all. As much as I can feel like an imaginative little boy, acting out my daily existence on the stage of Amsterdam, it's increasingly dawning on me that I actually do have something to offer. Seven years of experience in church leadership on two continents... helping to start and maintain a new faith community in the heart of post-modern Amsterdam over the past three years... teaching, coaching, and discipling dozens (if not hundreds) of young men and women from all corners of the globe... I don't want hubris to get the best of me -- but maybe I do have something to offer!

I just have to keep memorizing the lines from the Script and following the Director of the production. Then anyone joining me as an understudy on this Stage of life will be able to learn their role as we go.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Who ever said that Love was Cliché?

I don't care so much for Valentine's Day... Instead, I prefer Martin Luther King Junior Day. That third Monday of January in which America recognizes its civil rights hero... and the day on which I first recognized Marci as a woman and as an affect of my affection. I can remember the exact moment, in fact, when that illumination occured in the dim light of the community center. She was scarcely an arm's length in front of me and below me, seated on the floor, as the amber glow reflected from her golden tresses to light up a new part of my brain. In that moment, she was no longer merely a benign presence in my periphery. She was no longer just another member of the church youth group. She was no longer an anonymous high school "girl." She became a beautiful woman. She became a source of radiance and excitement. She became a muse, awaking new unspoken poetry that I had never before experienced. And every Martin Luther King Junior Day in the fourteen years since -- as well as every Valentine's Day -- has been about her.

I love her. I care deeply about her and for her.

But I don't care so much for a rich assortment of chocolates from a heart-shaped box... Instead, I prefer sizzling bratwurst. That smothering, smokey, sweet atmosphere of an August street festival signaling the end of the summer... but also signaling the beginning of a new relationship with Marci, back in 1993. The memory of our first date -- at the Bucyrus Bratwurst Festival -- still quite literally provokes a taste in my mouth, an aroma in my nostrils, and a distinct sensation of the glorious stirrings of young love within the deepest parts of my being. We watched the parade. We rode the ferris wheel. We listened to the nasal whine of country-western music pumped over loudspeakers. And we found ourselves unequivocally falling in love... In fact, that day of walking down the paved midway of downtown Bucyrus proved to be the first day of 4,561 (and counting) days of unbroken accompaniment on the road of life. And every step of the last 4,561 days, every bite of the last 13,683 meals -- whether bratwurst or chocolates -- has, in one way or another, involved her.

I love her. I care deeply about her and for her.

But I don't care so much for a dramatic bouquet of red roses... Instead, I prefer sweet and simple wildflowers plucked from the vast prairies of North America's Great Plains. That casual smattering of blue, yellow, and white blossoms plucked from the fields of the Cross Roads Range which clearly indicated my poor comprehension of basic floral arrangement techniques... but which also clearly indicated my relentless preoccupation with the woman who was writing me daily letters from a thousand miles away, responding to my daily letters and maintaining our thread of connection across a summer of geographic separation. I was such a young man in that photograph -- a seventeen-year-old boy, really -- holding out that cluster of wildflowers for Marci to see half a week later, pulled out from the envelope along with my regular love letter. Yet I was mature enough to realize Marci's infinite value, investing in our relationship even through the least favorable circumstances. And indeed, the compound interest of those investments has made me very satisfied -- whether our table is adorned with nobles' roses or paupers' wildflowers -- because my life has been enriched by her.

I love her. I care deeply about her and for her.

But I don't care so much for convention or cliché. Instead, I prefer the unique understandings shared with my Marci -- intuitively internalizing intimate contexts that no one else can claim in the ways that we can. Because that's what love is. That's what care is. That's where meaning finds its anchor -- no matter the adornments, no matter the menu, no matter the day of the year. I find it all in her.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Olympic Spirit

(Elliot gets into the Olympic spirit, with his pajamas, his bicycle helmet, and an old pair of work goggles transforming him into men's downhill medal hopeful, "Daddy Skier").

I'm not typically one for the constant drone of a television, trickling out noise from the corner of the living room to offer a multi-toned soundtrack to life's daily activities. I do not celebrate the practice of simply vegetating on the couch, remote control in hand, letting my eyes dance to the flicker of another world on the other side of the television screen...

But I must confess that the Olympics tend to be a bit of an exception in this regard.

Something about the combination of ceremony and sport, art and adventure, the subtle nuances of storytelling and the stark realities of winners and losers -- I become absorbed by the exotic world of Olympic games beamed into my living room from some far corner of the world. Perhaps this hypnosis is not the best, or the most productive...

Fortunately, it only comes every two years.

Friday, February 10, 2006


Our family has a prayer calendar that we use to help teach our kids about different ways that we can bring prayer into our daily lives. Perhaps the practice exhibits a bit of the cultural conditioning that I sometimes hesitate to celebrate, for fear that it leads to doubt regarding the sincerity of my children's spirituality. But so be it. Our family has found the prayer calendar to be a meaningful way to focus our home's spiritual dynamic and provide us with freshness and originality in our communication with our Heavenly Father. Every day, the calendar suggests a new creative activity to share, or a Bible verse to memorize, or a personal assignment to consider -- all highlighting the power of prayer for our own lives, our friends and family, our church, and our world.

Earlier in the week, an assignment suggested to, "Choose a country in Africa to pray for this month." So we posed the question to our oldest son (testing the classic assumption that every preschooler's knowledge of world geography would be adequate to answer the question): "Elliot, what country in Africa would you like to pray for this month?"

Elliot paused, considering the assignment carefully, before he responded tentatively: "I think... Asia." His second choice turned out to be "America," and only after consulting an atlas together were we able to zero in on the proper continent and settle on Egypt as the object of our family's prayer support.

It's funny how children misplace and mismatch different pieces of information, as they try to assimilate various sources of input and contextualize knowledge.

Olivia, my year-and-a-half-old daughter, is currently learning the parts of the face: eyes, ears, mouth, nose -- or as she would say them, "aaaaaye, eeeeah, mow, nooooh." It's adorable to see her figuring things out and spontaneously rehearsing the lessons from Mommy and Daddy. Reading a book on the living room couch, I'll suddenly find my girl's little forefinger eagerly (and unexpectantly) poking at the whites of my eyes, as she intones: "aaaaaye?" It's amazing to hear her talking and accurately identifying the parts of her face. But she's still learning. And she still makes mistakes at times. The other day, I asked her to show me her eye. And she parroted my question, "aaaaaye?" while ceremoniously inserting her index finger up her left nostril. I couldn't help myself from laughing at such physical comedy.

Indubitably, children learn by making mistakes and misplacing facts. Such trial-and-error discovery is an invaluable element of the human learning process, actually. I've only been able to learn Dutch because of a thousand (sometimes embarrassing) mistakes. I've only been able to learn adequate expression of my love for my wife and kids through a thousand failures and miscommunications. The only reason I've learned how to effectively lead a church is through a thousand moments of ineffective leadership and mistakes. Yet over time, I've learned to distinguish between the folly of misplacement and the wisdom of experience. We try to create a learning environment of grace and understanding, and we try to enjoy the mistakes along the way.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

went with

I've always thought of Marci as being the first and only woman in my life. My wife. The mother of my children. My first kiss. My first date. My first girlfriend. It sounds preposterous, but it's true... Well, mostly true. The fact is that I've started to wonder about all this.

I've started to wonder about Tracy Gumbel.

I still remember the evening that Theresa Schwartz approached me in the parking lot of the Marvin Memorial Library with the news that Tracy Gumbel wanted to "go with" me. Truth be told, I wasn't exactly sure what it meant to "go with" someone... But it turned out that this was basically the eleven-year-old equivalent of dating. A kind of officially recognized relationship with a member of the opposite sex -- except that it didn't involve any of that yucky stuff like kissing or holding hands or talking to one another. In fact, as far as I could gather, "going with" someone didn't even require being within ten meters of each other. So I said, "OK," and Theresa Schwartz skipped off through the front doors of the library -- presumably to formalize the arrangement with Tracy Gumbel.

As I sat upon the black metal railing at the sloped edging of the library parking lot, I dangled my legs and wondered at the mystery of what had just happened. I was "going with" Tracy Gumbel -- not that I found her particularly beautiful or interesting or meaningful... In fact, I remember that it was somewhat the opposite. But there was something interesting about the promise of a relationship. An acknowledgement of acceptance. A banner moment in the life of a sixth grader.

Unfortunately, things didn't work out with me and Tracy Gumbel. The one evening, Theresa Schwartz was strolling up the sidewalk and into the Marvin Memorial Library with a self-notarized verbal contract of relationship -- and the next day Tracy Gumbel and I strolled away, uninterrupted, on our divergent paths that have never again intersected in the two decades since. I don't ever remember a "break-up." I can't recall any kind of conscious decision to talk, or to stop talking... In fact, I honestly have no recollection of any further contact with Tracy Gumbel whatsoever.

So it's somewhat problematic to label my relationship with Tracy Gumbel. Was she, in fact, my first "girlfriend?" Or would actual communication be a prerequisite for a true relationship? Was there a "falling out," or did we ever know enough about each other to "fall into" something? Perhaps Tracy Gumbel thinks I'm a big jerk -- that I never followed through on my verbal "pledge" to "go with" her through life -- and she has been and will forever be spending her days in pain, bitterness, and regret about what might have been. Maybe she's summarized my identity through this interaction (or lack of interaction) and has developed an anti-Eric society and anti-Eric website spewing forth anti-Eric propaganda about my faithlessness and lack of integrity -- even while I've gone on to faithfully and exclusively love just one woman in all the time since that day at the library...

Or maybe I'm just thinking about all of this too much.

Friday, February 03, 2006

another commemoration

So this must be the week for commemorations. After observing the third anniversary of our move to Amsterdam on Sunday, and then reflecting upon the conclusion of my year with the Cover-to-Cover project on Tuesday, today serves as occasion for another commemoration.

It's been exactly one year since my first "real" post on this blog.

I set the Blogger account up in December of 2004, but I don't think that really counted as an official post. But ever since the 3rd of February last year, I've been regularly sending my "casual and critical observations on life, love, and faith" out into cyberspce in the form of short prose and photography on AmsterdamAsp. I've been surprised by how much I've come to enjoy blogging. As it turns out, I've become extremely grateful to have this outlet for creativity, self-expression, and emotional processing.

I thought it might be interesting to try and identify my "top three" (personal favorite) blog posts from the last year. If anyone who happens to come across this space has further thoughts or comments, I would be extremely interested to hear what others think (just post a comment below). But for myself, I think I was surprised by how quickly and easily I was able to zero in on my favorite posts to this blog. In no particular order, here are my picks for the top three posts from the last year:

Perceptions: The process of pursuing medical treatment for Olivia's hemangioma was a significant theme throughout my first year of blogging, but it proved to be a very refining experience. I found this post from the beginning of August to be an especially meaningful introspective on my feelings toward my daughter Olivia... And apparently, so did others. I never got more hits on the site or more comments -- from both friends and perfect strangers -- than I did for this story.

Tram lijn 7 - Richting Flevopark - 22:49: I'm not 100 percent sure why this post sticks out in my mind so much. It certainly didn't catch the attention of others (like the aforementioned post), and it's not really that personal. But something about this story just seemed to capture the essence of Amsterdam in my mind. I hope to one day be able to re-write the piece more effectively for use in something else.

Traffic Love: This story was my Mother's Day present (for my mother) in 2005. I like the old photograph at the top of the post, and writing the story seemed to tap into a wave of nostalgia and reminiscence for me. Truthfully, the other two of the "top three" posts were much more easily and more immediately identifiable, and there were a couple of other possibilities that could have also made it into the top three, but I think this is a good choice to round the list out.

So perhaps it may seem a bit egotistical to analyze and announce my own "top three" list for my own blog. But the Dutch are outspoken and unashamed when it comes to their birthday celebrations, and this blog is a Dutch blog -- or at least an Amsterdamse blog. And today is her birthday. Lang zal ze leven...

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Feeling Cold

(Special thanks to Michaël for his excellent images of Amsterdam's frozen fog)

Sub-zero temperatures feel much harsher when one rides bare-faced through a frozen fog, at the 25 kilometers-per-hour clip of a bicycle. The landscape is transformed into something hushed, tremulous, mystical -- perhaps even beautiful -- yet my ears sting, my chin numbs, and my fingers chafe in the damp chill of the Dutch winter. It's cold outside. It's really cold outside. I mean, it's really, very cold outside. Like an angry girlfriend, the wintry world has turned frozen, unresponsive, curt. I feel the brutality of her cold shoulder in more ways than one. She won't talk, and she won't return my calls any more.

What's odd is that I experienced much colder temperatures in the days of my Midwestern American youth. The Great Lakes region from which I originate regularly received vast quantities of winter precipitation, and as a boy I was well-accustomed to snowsuits, and snowforts, and snowdays. My son finds "smoking" in the brisk winter air to be a fun novelty, while I intuitively understood the billowy condensation of warm carbon dioxide to be the norm while breathing and growing up in Wisconsin winters.

But the difference here in Holland is that I'm more exposed. Snow and freezing temperatures may be less common here in the Atlantic climate of northwestern Europe, and the extremes are muted... Yet the chill is powerful and pervasive because it cannot be avoided. Drafty old buildings allow exposure to the elements even from within the "sheltered" places. A choice between a bitterly cold bicycle ride or a bitterly cold wait at the tram stop leave me wishing for my heated automobile and two-car garage. And the damp, diligent dreariness of Holland februari's feels somehow heavier than the brilliant, brisk "brrrr" of Ohio Februaries.

Yet I do not despair. I will my numbed fingers to grip tightly to my only tool for survival: patience. One day, the fog will lift. The earth will thaw. And my girl, my spring, will warm me once again with her embrace -- as if for the first time.