Thursday, March 30, 2006

Say It Ain't So

A friend recently forwarded a link to an article entitled, "Killing Babies, Compassionately: The Netherlands follows in Germany's footsteps." Written in an American political journal called the Weekly Standard (with which I'm otherwise not so familiar), the article raises some pretty serious concerns about Dutch medical policies -- most notably in regard to euthanizing babies with birth defects. And honestly, I don't know what to think of it.

Is this true? Is the Dutch public aware of this practice? Are people bothered by it?

I've always been a bit uncomfortable with Dutch policies toward things like euthanasia, institutional prostitution, and managing the problems of drug addiction -- but I've tried to bite my lip and take my cues from the population at large. I've sought to learn about the Netherlands' "normen en waarden" as I go. I continually try to understand before judging. I remind myself that America is messed up in its own ways (and in ways that are painfully obvious to the rest of the world). But this article definitely seems to indicate something seriously amiss in Dutch society...

I've got my opinions against euthanasia and abortion, and I natrually resist arguments in favor of the "right to choice" -- but I don't understand how anyone could advocate medical homicide against newborn children. The issue of "choice" is thrown clear out the window. What disturbs me most is the idea that infants are sometimes euthanized even without parental consent!

Is it a stretch to compare ultra-tolerant Dutch medical policy to social-Darwinistic Nazi medical policy? Absolutely. But there are some scary parallels that should not and cannot be ignored.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

To Elliot, on the occasion of his fourth birthday

Dear Elliot,

Today, we celebrate four years of you. Amazing. In some ways, it seems that you have been a part of our lives forever; "four years" just doesn't seem to do it justice. The world was a different place four years ago. Your mother and I were different people. "Home" meant something else in those days... before you... But then again, in other ways, I feel that it wasn't so long ago when I was holding you for the first time -- the smallest person I had ever seen. I can still see the cool white shadows on the snow outside the windows of Saint Luke's Hospital in Maumee, Ohio. I sang you "Thousand Miles" while you slept. And I knew that you were something special, even from the beginning moments of your life.

I've discovered that my first impressions of people have proved to be highly reliable. I don't know if this sense of intuition will be hereditary -- or if it's perhaps just human -- but I sense you'll figure it out in due time. Whatever the case may be, I knew from that first day that you were something special, and indeed the last four years have only confirmed that you are "something special" -- unbelievably unique -- even though I never could have completely envisioned or understood the full extent of this in those early days.

Now, in 2006, you are exploding out of every element of your being. Even in comparison with a scant month ago, you seem bigger, louder, heavier, taller, quicker, stronger, smarter, smoother, more sensitive, more articulate, more insightful, more meaningful. I can hardly imagine what the coming years will bring. It's actually kind of scary... But it's kind of cool, too.

When I think of you now, at the age of four, I am glad for your simple complexity. I am glad that you're four right now, and not fourteen... or twenty-four. In these times, you often wake up in the mornings by mewing like a kitty, as I'm working at my desk. And when the time is right (oh, about 7:30 or 7:45), I slide up the dial on the living room halogen floor lamp, I slide open your bedroom door, and I slide into bed beside you -- to smell you, to embrace you, to welcome my kitten to a new day. It is a highlight of my day. After you clown around for a little bit and finally tumble out of bed, we have to start getting serious for the business of the day. You don't usually want to go to "school" (peuterspeelzaal), but you seem to enjoy it once you're there. You sing songs like "Clowntje Piet" and "Appel, Peer, Dag Meneer." You speak Dutch beautifully (so far as this is possible in a language with so much throat to it). You bring home colored pictures of houses and trees. And you want to talk -- not let me read my book -- while we eat lunch together. These are good times. The rest of the day is filled with games and adventures. Wrestling, running, jumping, singing. You definitely keep busy. And then you end the day by suggesting a story, listening to me invent some silly adventure, praying together (you with the first sentence, me with the rest), and drinking a cup of water. As the curtain closes on the day, you ask me to leave the door open a crack and shoo away the intimidating "red guys" from your room, so you can have a good night's sleep. And, of course, I do it for you. I wouldn't have it any other way. I know that someday -- maybe not so long from now -- your days will be filled with more serious thoughts, more introspection, more concealed emotions... But we're not in any hurry to get there.

Elliot, as I think about you, I realize that I am so proud of the person that you are becoming. I admire your spiritual sensitivity. I'm convinced that this is quite unusual for a child of your age -- even for a child of your age who is raised in an environment of ministry and mission. You thoughtfully engage with God. You really pray. You really listen for God's voice. You even concern yourself with questions about the souls of mosquitos... This is something about you that I never hope will be lost. I love your sense of compassion; it's so much more developed than my own. You consider others. You're consumed by the idea of "needy people" -- wanting to seek them out and help them even on a quiet Sunday morning when the grocery stores are closed and the Hema is dark. You have a gentle spirit. You are generous and kind. I am thrilled to have such a son. I love you very much.

You've come so far in four years, Elliot. I wonder at your potential for the years to come. Keep on trusting Jesus. Keep your heart soft; there are those who will trample a soft heart -- but even when you get trampled, keep your heart soft. Crying is good, but don't make others cry. Especially not Olivia or Mommy. Take care of your sister and your mother. Embrace the role of protector and defender. You can carry it well. I see it in you, and I believe in you.

I love you, Elliot. I'm proud of you. You're my boy, and forever I'm yours...


Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Have you ever been drunk with the wine of nostalgia? It's a powerful drink. A bittersweet drink. A drink that is more easily understood than explained.

I've been reflecting recently on the power of songs like Jack Johnson's "Do You Remember?" and the stories from Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion." Something about them draws me in. Cloaks me with their warmth. Makes me want to spin my own golden tales to cover the shoulders of any passers-by.

I feel like I often use this space to pour out tall goblets of vintage memories... like my last post about car radio and sunny days, or even the previous week's musings on the third anniversay of Zolder50's inception... When I sit down to blog, I'll often think back on old places (like the cornfields on the outskirts of Bowling Green), or old experiences (like childhood adventures at hotel swimming pools), or old people (like my Mom and my Dad -- sorry, I could hardly avoid the pun, even though my parents are really not that old!)... Even in writing about the here-and-now, I feel that I sometimes try to create a sense of "contemporary nostalgia."

There's just something powerful and intoxicating about nostalgia.

But it also occurs to me that nostalgia -- like any other intoxicant -- can be subject to abuse. In the same way that alcohol can be idolized and overused to create a false reality, our recollections and reminiscences can be exagerated and idealized to the distort our understanding of people, places, and events from our past. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Oddly enough, I was struck with this reminder by way of a quote from Garrison Keillor. In one of his aforementioned radio broadcasts, he suggested: "My memory is faulty, as everyone's is. And I think back to that life that's gone, and those people. And I think about it as the olden days, the good old days, when life was simple. And it's not true. It's a terrible disservice to them. Life was simple for me, then, because I was a child. And my happiness was looked after by other people. But it was not simple for the others. Never."

I'm not exactly sure what to make of these thoughts for my own life and my own attempts to wax nostalgic in my writing. But at least I'm thinking about it. And in the meantime, I might try to serve as a conscientious bartender, serving up fine vintage nostalgia with a two-drink limit and an eye toward people heading into the parking lot with their keys in hand.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Polder Traveling Companion

I recently received a package from my sister with a belated birthday card and present. The card was thoughtfully inscribed, and the gift turned out to be a wonderful surprise. It was a five-disc collection of music and stories from the first 25 years of "A Prairie Home Companion."

Perhaps you've never heard of "A Prairie Home Companion." It seems that most people in Amsterdam have not (though, of course, I'm not surprised). "A Prairie Home Companion" is a radio program produced by Minnesota Public Radio and broadcast across the United States each weekend on National Public Radio. The show features American folk music, various comedy sketches, and -- most notably -- reports by Garrison Keillor on the week's happenings from the (fictional) small-town settings of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.

The show basically functions as an ode to the northern Midwest region of America, and for me it has instant associations of sunny weekend car-rides with my family. My parents would listen to the show (often against the protests of myself and my siblings) and laugh at the dry, sharp, clever, and insightful commentary on life in provincial prairie country. The people and places of Lake Wobegon proved to be a spot-on match for the places of their (and my) personal experience: Jamestown, North Dakota... Kerkhoven, Minnesota... Long Prairie, Minnesota... Lancaster, Wisconsin... even Shelby, Ohio. Places where the people come of hardy Scandinavian stock, with a keen sense of irony and understatement. Places where religion is often a definitive collective culture more than a personal spiritual expression. Places where people "take care of their own" while simultaneously enjoying the gossip of neighors' folly. Places "where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above-average"... Everything about "A Prairie Home Companion" rang true -- from the accents to the expressions to the thought patterns. Thus, the show offered a hilarious self-indictment and a poignant preservation of Northern culture. Although as a child I was typically too impatient for the deliberate pace of Midwestern art and comedy, I grew to love the stories and sounds from "A Prairie Home Companion" -- and as a young adult, I would find excuses to take long car rides on sunny weekend afternoons, so I could tune in for myself.

In recent months, I've found that I'm not the only one who holds such an affection for "A Prairie Home Companion." My brother Jay wrote a post several months ago about the powerful nostalgic effect of the radio program and the effect that it has on him even now, living with his family in urban Texas. My old friend Ross also wrote a post recently, from Japan, confessing his love for the show and his anticipation for an upcoming film project based on the radio series... Thus it seems that no matter where the winds of change may carry us Midwesterners -- from Texas, to Japan, to Holland -- something keeps bringing us back to the prairies and farmlands of our homeland. And that something often proves to be "A Prairie Home Companion."

So given the miracles of modern technology, I can load five and a half hours of "A Prairie Home Companion" onto my PDA (which also functions as my digital audio player) and carry them with me wherever I go. I've become fond of affixing the earbuds underneath my stocking cap as I pedal my bicycle past the urban Dutch landscape. And as I ride -- despite the incongruency of the environment -- I am somehow transported to the sun-drenched backseat of a car traveling on I-90 across the flickering flatlands of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Garrison Keillor's patient barritone makes me laugh. Makes me cry. Makes me feel like I'm at home.

If you catch me grinning like an idiot as I ride on my bicycle through the streets of Amsterdam, now you'll know why.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

figuring things out

You would be amazed to hear Olivia talk. Something about the spontaneous eruption of intelligible language from a toddler is miraculous. Surprising and surreal. It seems that my 18-month-old daughter's process of learning to speak has accelerated exponentially within the last couple of weeks.

Although it took about a year for the first barely-decipherable tones of "Mama" and "Dayee" (Daddy) to be painstakingly drawn from the well of her lips, we're now receiving the bubbling brook of new words and simple sentences every day. Earlier this week, Marci was surprised when Olivia noticed the sound of her brother's tricycle in the hallway and pointed while inquisitively-yet-articulately quipping, "Whatsat?" (What's that?)... The following day, she mastered execution of the word "cookies" (although the pronunciation still varies sometimes between "dookies" and "cookies") and "slide" (well, okay... so she says "schly" -- but it was still pretty astonishing for a kid that's been cooped up, away from playgrounds, all winter). She mimics almost everything she hears, and we're continually amazed to see how many words and phrases stick in her mind; for instance, I love it when Elliot hides and she cups her hands in front of her mouth, intoning "Ell-iyah," and then turns to me and shrugs her shoulders while asking, "Wheh-iye go?" (Where did he go?). Of course, she still makes honest mistakes -- calling a chicken a "duh" (duck) or exclaiming "brekfah" (breakfast) when we're in the process of serving lunch. But she's learning. And her mistakes can often be quite insightful -- like the way that she uses the word "door" for any kind of object that needs to be opened (for example, the "door" the screws on top of the peanut butter jar or the "door" that zips up her jacket).

I'm fascinated by the process of language acquisition. My own adventures in learning Dutch over the last three years have paralleled and precipitated my appreciation for Olivia's initial steps in "language acquisition." Like Olivia, I've also learned much and can occasionally surprise people with my Dutch capabilities. But I can also make amusing mistakes -- like the time that I told some friends that I would have to be leaving a party "binnenkort" (which implies "soon" as in within the coming couple of weeks), or the time I took offense at a joke about the fluidity" of some ice cream because I thought they were mocking the "fluency" of my Dutch... Furthermore, I enjoy unique insights into language through comparison of English and Dutch, like being amused by the way that the Dutch refer to gloves as "handschoenen" (hand shoes), or the multitude of uses for the word "lekker" (referring to anything pleasing to the senses -- such as a delicious meal or a warm coat or the fresh fragrance of a rose).

Well, my fascination with language acquisition came full-circle yesterday, when bundling up Olivia to go outside for a bicycle ride... Olivia always seems to be overjoyed at the idea of going outside, and -- like anything that excites her -- such an idea sets her to chattering and trying out her vocabulary. I say, "Do you want to go outside, Olivia?" and she says "'tsai!" (Outside!). So I respond by saying, "Let's go get ready," and she says, "Leh's go!" (Let's go!). I help her put on her jacket, but she gets impatient as I pause to zip up my jacket -- prompting a defiant shout of "Door!" as she fiddles with the zipper at the bottom of her yet-unzipped coat. I zip up her coat and afix her hat and scarf. But as I turn off the lights in the house, check for my keys, and get ready to head out the door, Olivia raises her arms above her heads and reminds me of the one thing which I've forgotten. Picking at the pink-and-blue mittens hanging from her coat sleeves, she says in a voice as clear as day: "Shoes!"

And as I shimmy the little "handschoenen" onto her excited fingers, I am reminded of the miracle language acquisition. Someway, somehow -- both Olivia and I are figuring things out.

Friday, March 24, 2006


The sacred stillness of the sactuary is a silent symphony for my soul. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

The soft white light filters in through the ectomorphic arches and reflects off the clean white pillars and walls to create a visual sense of serenity that matches the auditory hush. It's beautiful -- but not just because it was well-designed and well-built with fine materials by a fine craftsman. It's holy -- but not just because it was built as a religious space on the grounds of a religous institution. It's beautiful and it's holy because God is reflected more clearly in all things bright, serene, and still. And my soul is more bright, more serene, and more still in this place. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Though my sense of geography tells me that trams rumble past less than 50 meters from where I sit -- I cannot feels their bustling aura. Though my sense of logic reminds me that I'm in the middle of one of the biggest cities of one of the most densely populated corners of the globe, I look up through the high bank of windows to see nothing but blue sky and naked tree brances swaying in the wind. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

But I am not alone. Tragically so, yet usefully so. The blue-shirted janitor and the elegant woman arranging flowers serve as foils for my distractions. Instead of swatting the flies of ideas from within my own head, a part of me is allowed to enter its sacred place while another part of me stays with the janitor, the florist, the busy ideas of life. And as the janitor chisels away the wax residue from the metal altar, I chisel away the distractions from my consciousness. The flower woman puts the finishing touches on an arrangement of lilies, then quietly and dutifully exits so as not to disturb me any further. But the janitor keeps chiseling, and I start to become perturbed by his intrusion into my sacred moment. Chiseling turns to sweeping to mopping to vacuuming to the point of absurdity. But as the morning's chores are completed, the periods of silence grow longer. And soon I am left to complete serenity. Sacred stillness. Sanctuary. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

3 x 50

I reckon the 21st of March as the birthdate of Zolder50. Thus, if you go by my calculations, our church celebrates its third birthday today.

Of course, I understand that it's problematic to pick a specific day as the official starting point for a project as extensive and involved as starting a new church in central Amsterdam. Do you count from the day that the legal papers for "Stichting GCM Netherlands" were officially drawn up and put on file with the Dutch authorities? Do you count from the day that the first members of the church planting team set foot on Dutch soil? Do you count from the day that we formally took possession of the facilities on the Leidsekade that would one day become "the Zolder?" I suppose there could be reason to consider any of these moments (or any number of other events) as launch dates for our church. But for me, I consider all of these developments as a part of the extended gestation period leading up to 21 March 2003.

I claim this day as our birthday because on 21 March 2003, our church held its first "public" event in the Zolder. An open-house party for anyone and everyone who wanted to come and visit. We had actually organized a number of informal parties and strategic discussions before. We had even been gathering regularly for prayer and Bible study. But the 21st of March that year was different. Perhaps an attitude as much as anything. But I remember that Friday evening as something distinct. The last member of our staff team had just arrived. The third coat of oil on the new oak flooring had just finished drying -- a symbolic as much as practical sealant for the blood, sweat, and tears that had been poured into reconstructing the Zolder space. A short-term missions team from a church in Orlando was in town to help us organize a special "kick-off" event. And for the first time, we made a deliberate effort to put the word out about our "faith community" (even though we didn't have a name -- much less a vaguely descriptive pronoun -- for our church/kerk/community/geloofsgemeenschap, at that point). Starting that Friday evening, we began welcoming strangers as well as friends -- people from the parks and pleins, as well as personal acquaintances. And from that point forward, we've continued welcoming newcomers and old-timers for regular gatherings in the Zolder...

There's so much history -- so much to remember -- from the last three years.

What stands out in your mind? That first Easter Sunday -- being shocked by the number of people that turned out, listening to the resurrection story interlaced through so many different languages? Or that wavery candelabra -- which bathed the Zolder in gentle firelight until the pressing crowds (and the accompanying fire hazard) forced us to extinguish its flame? Or those tears of anger and bitterness in July -- singing "Blessed Be the Name" at an informal gathering in the Zolder with a handful of heartbroken friends? Or that radiant evening of recovery and redirection -- Todd presenting the rose-colored rock that sits on the mantle of the Zolder lounge? Or those heapings of chicken curry -- enjoying gezellige meals with good friends and bizarre strangers? Or that golden September afternoon on the banks of the Nieuwe Meer -- celebrating the baptism of Eline, Leslie Jurren, Renske, Sabrina, and Sokol, and realizing that Zolder50 was here to stay? There's so much history -- so much to remember -- from the last three years.

One of my most poignant memories from those early days is the smell of slightly-burnt microwave popcorn, the rumble of war sounds from the new audio system, the glow of projected images on a bedsheet... Steve owned the boxed set edition of the "Band of Brothers" film series, and he had invited a bunch of us to join him in the Zolder to watch episodes one and two. Jeff was in town, on a visit. And we stoic men were moved to tears by the images of Easy Company training in Toccoa, running together up Currahee, toasting our jump wings, dropping into Normandy, fighting to establish a footing in hostile territory... It was a story that moved us, that resonated deeply with us, that inspired us. Yet I don't remember us ever getting past those first two episodes on the Zolder's "big screen."

In fact, it was several months before I was able to finish watching the last eight episodes of "Band of Brothers." And by then, our day-to-day existence in Amsterdam had already taught us many of the films' lessons. About comraderie and conviction. About casualties and replacements. About courage and perseverance. But for whatever reason, "Band of Brothers" has remained a powerful metaphor for my life and for the young life of Zolder50.

And I'm still so amazed and honored to be a part of the Band of Brothers and Sisters that have made up -- and are making up -- Zolder50. However you reckon the third anniversary of our church's existence, the event is a cause for celebration.

"Van harte gefeliciteerd, Zolder50... en lang zal je leven."

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Zans for Cans

At our house, we open cans.
We have to open many cans.
And that is why we have a Zans.
A Zans for cans is very good.
Have you a Zans for cans?
You should.

Consider a set of simple substitutions, based on these classic words from Dr. Seuss's "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" -- substituting "city" for "house," "museums" for "cans," and "museumjaarkaart" for "Zans." Give it a try... The rhyme and rhythm don't work nearly as nicely, and in fact it's a ludicrous exercise. But it's a valuable message that I would urge every Amsterdammer to consider...

As a matter of fact, Amsterdam is home to no less than 68 museums, many of which regularly change exhibitions. Thus, it seems crazy to me to observe the number of Amsterdammers who do not take advantage of a €25 annual investment in a museumjaarkaart.

I've been a cardholder for each of the three years that I've lived here in Amsterdam (I just re-upped for a fourth year), and I probably visit approximately one museum per week. Some frequented more than others. Some enjoyed more than others. But definitely visited. And definitely appreciated. For me, museums are places to think and breathe. Places to be stimulated and educated. Places to be reminded of who man is, and who God is. Places for rest and relaxation. Places for recreation and rejuventation.

Today, I took my kids to the Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics) and enjoyed a fun (and inexpensive) morning of building mosaic masterpieces, riding a motorized rickshaw, and listening to Iranian folk stories.

On Friday, I visited the Bijbelsmuseum (Bible Museum) and basked in the stillness of the renovated mansion on the Herengracht. Honestly, the exhibitions there are typically less appealing than the quiet corridors and glorious garden... But they've recently brought back a multimedia presentation called "De Bijbel NU" ("The Bible NOW") that is extremely well-produced and well-worth one's time and attention. The presentation's depiction of the Bible is actually surprisingly secular (detached, academic, even irreverent at times), but the images and sounds and stories are truly moving -- even if one's Dutch is less than fluent... I almost posted a recommendation for this exhibition last summer, after I first saw it -- but now that it's back (until the end of June), I simply must offer my endorsement.

Of course, there are so many other museums that I could mention... Marci and I recently enjoyed a Friday evening at the Rijksmuseum (the National Gallery), which has extended hours and special live performances on the weekends -- although we probably prefer Friday evenings at the Van Gogh Museum and the FOAM (Photographic Museum) is a favorite museum that is always open later on Fridays. But you should perhaps discover this for yourself...

A museumjaarkaart for museums is very good.
Have you a museumjaarkaart for museums?
You should.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

a honey-loathing, gruel-gobbling, crying shame...

I've decided to really try and soak myself in the Proverbs this year. Reading them every day. Seeking to memorize and internalize their meaning for my life. Their wisdom for the world... And the soaking is slowly starting to soften my skin. Peel away some callouses. Open the blood vessels of my spirit.

One of the Proverbs that I've been reflecting upon recently is from chapter 27, verse 7: "He who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet..."

The other day, on the television, I watched an evening program on MTV that featured people living "True Life: I Live on the Edge" -- freestyle motocross, kite-boarding, base jumping.

Sarah is a professional motorcyclist who spends thousands of dollars to fly to Maryland for three days of trying to become the first woman to ever master a backflip on "the big bike." She does this by jumping over and over from a ramp into a 100 meter pit of foam cubes. And unfortunately, she never gets it. And of course, wanting so desperately to develop as a freestyle motocross rider, this failure makes her cry. She becomes sore from hitting the foam so many times, having the motorcycle land on top of her repeatedly, and yet never getting the perfect back flip. She is so disappointed by the failure -- but she's going to keep her chin up through another season of racing on the dirt tracks, and she'll try for the backflip again at the end of the season, as all her fellow motocrossers nod approvingly: "Good for you. Way out there..."

Jesse is a guy consumed by his passion for the budding sport of kite-boarding. Every windy day causes him to beg off work and head for the beach, so he can practice his tricks. He dreams of becoming a professional kite-boarder. He is thrilled by an offer for a clothing sponsor -- crushed by a finish outside the top three at the Islamorada Invitational. He can be happy for his friend Mikey, who pulls off some "sick" maneuvers and enjoys "mad props" from all his peers -- but you can see that he's sorely disappointed at having to "trudge" through his daily existence until his next opportunity for glory and greatness...

Gunnar is a guy who has skydived some 327 times but who is in deep despair because it just doesn't do anythin gofr him anymore. For awhile he tries "skimming" -- skydiving with elaborate landings over water or on the ground -- and it does bring a bit more adrenaline from the addition of a bit more danger (one of Gunnar's peers even dies in the act of skimming)... But it still just feels so empty... So he decides to try base-jumping. Maybe it will bring something that his career in race-car driving won't bring. Maybe it will bring something that skydiving and skimming won't bring. So he books a flight and a hotel room and two days of instruction from some of the premier base-jumping instructors in the world. And the teach him how to jump from a bridge. Gunnar becomes an officially-recognized base-jumper. And fortunately, Gunnar discovers that base-jumping is more exciting and fulfilling than he had even imagined. "Totally rad," even. Definitely "Living on the Edge."

Yet it's all so shameful to me. Motorcycles, automobiles, airplanes... How many gallons of oil were poured out for these experiences? Hotel rooms, equipment, instructors, insurance... How much money was poured out for these exeriences? Tears, anxieties, hopes, dreams, satisfactions... How many emotions were poured out for these experiences?

The shame of it all is highlighted by another television program that I saw earlier on the same day. A program highlighting the severity of famine in Niger from a couple years ago. Small children malnourished, starving, slowly dying in the arms of their parents. Leathery skin stretched over wickery frames. Wandering eyes, seemingly following the circling patterns of figurative buzzards flying over the makeshift clinic in the middle of the wasteland. The children's faces manage weak smiles as they're fed scant spoonfuls of bland gruel. Their malnourished systems can only take small amounts of the most basic foodstuffs.

Habu is a little baby boy who is covered in sores from multiple infections facilitated by the severe malnutrition that has plagued him for most of his young life. Rashidu is another child, a toddler, who suffers from "water in his tissues." And Aminu is a boy who suffers from edema that is causing his skin to literally peel off. The images of these three children are astonishing -- a sickening contrast to the well-toned muscles and designer clothing worn by the three extreme athletes. Later on in the television program, in fact, it is revealed that Habu, Rashidu, and Aminu do not even survive beyond the day in which the footage was taken. And yet Sarah, Jesse, and Gunnar are surviving and smiling from the rush of escaping designer deaths at the hands of an overturned motorcycle, a shallow beach, or a rocky gorge.

It's just all so shameful to me. That our society is rich enough and bored enough to support such habits as base-jumping. That Americans can make a living at riding motorcycles. That people are given free clothing and discounted equipment to "professionally kite-board." That a television program would glorify such lifestyles. That I spent an hour of my life watching the program and allowing my purchasing patterns to be subconsciously influenced by the commercials between breaks. That I can afford to pipe cable television into my house to watch the program -- along with high-speed internet so I can write about the program...

All while millions of others in the world suffer and die for lack of a couple of dollars or euros worth of food and medical care.

Indeed, "he who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet..." The sad thing is to realize that I'm closer to the honey-loathing end of the spectrum than the gruel-gobbling end of the spectrum. And as pitiful as Sarah, Jesse, and Gunnar's lifestyles may seem, I don't know if I have the moral integrity to pick up the first stone to strike them down.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Elliot invented a new game today. He calls it "Chase." The game basically involves running circles through our house. Sometimes with Daddy chasing Elliot. Sometimes with Elliot chasing Daddy. Sometimes with Olivia chasing Elliot chasing Daddy. From the Living Room to the Hallway to the Dining Room to the Living Room... And on and on and on.

It's the classic type of repetitive children's activity that defies all logic, where the same old thing a thousand times in a row manages to stay fresh and interesting and invigorating, even to a four-year-old with an attention span the length of -- well, a four-year-old. Marci says it's a sign of cabin fever -- a lack of outdoor play activity, a heart made sick by the deferral of spring's hope. But I say that it's the beginnings of a shift in power -- a systematic probing of the older generation's weaknesses and a semi-conscious discovery of the younger generation's strength and potential. The Chase is on.

How can I bring myself to say it? How can I bring myself to admit that I was physically conquered by my four-year-old son? It's embarrassing. Yet I must confess that I was gassed by the Chase.

At first it was just a fun diversion. An innocent affair. But Elliot really enjoyed the Chase. And over time, I started to despise the Chase. The soles of my feet started to develop hot spots; my breathing became labored; I had to strip off my outer shirt to accomodate for the rise of my body temperature... All while Elliot simply plowed ahead. From the Living Room to the Hallway to the Dining Room to the Living Room to the Hallway to the Dining Room to the Living Room. Again and again and again. We had to have been running non-stop for forty-five minutes, if it was ten. I steeled myself and determined not to stop before Elliot was tuckered out. But he was incredible. A machine. Not only did his little legs keep pounding, pounding, pounding. But he had lungs enough to sing! To sing and laugh and yell. And run.

In the end, it was only the (relative) shortness of Elliot's attention span -- not his shortness of breath -- that spared me true defeat. He found something else to occupy his attention while I collapsed on the couch and put my feet up. But as far as I know, he never tired. I don't know how he summoned such strength and endurance for the Chase Game -- especially when I must routinely carry him for parts of the 400 meter walk to the grocery store. All I know is that my boy is growing, developing, moving closer to the peak of physical strength... And I -- as much as I hate to admit it -- I am crested, slowly deteriorating, gradually descending the mountain on the other side of the "peak" of my physical prowess.

I suppose I'm being a bit melodramatic. With the body of a healthy 29-year-old, I'm certainly not complaining -- but even I can notice that I healed more quickly, moved more freely, and looked noticeably younger at the age of 25. I still have much life to live -- and I plan to make the most of it. Lord willing, I look forward to many more years of laughing and playing with my children as they grow older. Nevertheless, I caught a glimpse of the day when my teenage son will best me on the basketball court. I caught glimpse of the day in the future when Olivia will be carrying heavier boxes than I can manage. I caught a glimpse of the generational shift that is already (slowly) occurring.

I can't deny that the Chase is begun.

Monday, March 13, 2006


Marco tells me that I'm a bikkel. But I'm not so sure.

For one thing, I've been told (by Marco himself) that the Dutch word bikkel can be used to indicate a man with just one testicle (don't ask me why they have a special word designated for this anomaly!)... But even if you use the other meaning for bikkel -- that is, to refer to someone who is tough or courageous (again, don't ask me how the same word could represent these vastly different concepts!) -- I still feel less than comfortable in owning up to the title.

Marco told me I was a bikkel yesterday, for marching into the icy waters of the Nieuwe Meer to help baptize my friend Maria. Despite the fact that the banks of the lake were covered in a thin layer of snow, and even though other parts of the lake were actually covered in ice -- Maria, Vera, and I waded into the frigid water wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, while a crowd of Maria's friends and family looked on (wearing their parkas, hats, and gloves). And certainly, such an act requires some balls (please forgive me, but the pun could hardly be avoided!)... However, even after momentarily staring hypothermia in the face, I am surely no bikkel.

It's not especially tough or courageous to stand beside someone, say a few words, and ceremoniously dip her beneath the water to the cheers and tears of those watching. I guess I may have been mildly in danger of losing a toe or a testicle to frostbite in the freezing waters of the Nieuwe Meer -- but it's not especially tough or courageous to get a bit wet below the waist, in the act of drenching a good friend... And since I'm glad to say that my body is still fully intact, I cannot say that I am a bikkel.

But I stood beside a true bikkel in the Nieuwe Meer yesterday.

Maria displayed true courage in choosing to follow Jesus, less than half a year ago. Maria has displayed true toughness in the months since, as she's made daily decisions to follow Jesus in the most practical ways of life -- quitting a job that compromised her beliefs, sharing her faith boldly with her old circle of friends, leaving behind a life of familiar faults for a life of foreign faith. Maria showed the true heart of a bikkel, in opting to celebrate her baptism at the cold, cold Nieuwe Meer instead of at the heated revalidatie centrum where only ten people would have been able to witness the public pronouncement of her faith. Maria's mother, co-workers, neighbors, bar-buddies, and other friends were able to catch a glimpse of true Christian commitment through her courage and toughness in submersing herself in the death of Christ (Romans 6:3) -- in order to rise again from the Nieuwe Meer, confident and exhuberant in public confession of her Nieuwe Leven in Christus!

What a beautiful celebration. What a powerful symbol. What a bikkel...

Friday, March 10, 2006


Nothing quite wakes me up to the pains and perversions of our world like a visit to the Stedelijk Museum. Amsterdam's museum of modern art is both beautiful and disturbing in its complex abstractions of the way it looks, the way it feels, to live and move and breathe and be in today's society.

I used to be repulsed by "modern art" -- or at least skeptical and confused... and definitely unappreciative. Yet ironically, even as I've gained an appreciation for modern art through my visits to the Stedelijk Museum, I am still often confused by the art (and I would be especially so if I were not afforded the benefits of explanatory placards). I am still skeptical of the artists' messages (if not their media). And truthfully, I am still repulsed and haunted by the images and emotions from within the Stedelijk Museum.

I see their beauty. I appreciate their meaning. Yet I am disturbed by their reality.

Today I was most profoundly affected by the art of an Iranian-American filmmaker named Shirin Neshat. In particular, Neshat's short film, "Zarin" haunted me with its graphic depiction of the metaphysical effects of sin and guilt. The museum's description of the piece is as follows:

This latest film by Neshat, recently shot in Morocco, chronicles the emotional and psychological breakdown of a young woman, Zarin, who has been working as a prostitute in an Iranian brothel since childhood. One day, as she attends to one of her clients, it seems he no longer has a face. From that moment on, every client appears to her faceless. Overcome with feelings of horror and shame, she believes she has been struck by God’s punishment: she has gone mad. She flees the brothel to seek redemption. Going to the hammam (public bath), she washes and scrubs her body until it bleeds, but as she emerges from the hammam she discovers that all the men in the street remain faceless. Frantically finding her way to a mosque, she begins to fervently pray, in the hope that God will forgive her for her indiscretions.
Honestly, I found the film to be very disturbing. Very raw and direct. Not a good date movie (in case you were wondering). However, "Zarin" was truly meaningful, because it visually expressed a very real human struggle. Not just the struggle of an Iranian prostitute being haunted by faceless men because of her lifestyle's contrast with the predominant Muslim culture -- but the struggle of an imperfect person losing the connection and context of life because of her sin and the sin of her culture.

Zarin sought to escape sin through changing her environment (leaving the brothel, wandering the streets of Tehran). Zarin sought to escape sin through changing the cast of characters (looking for faces among the strangers on the street, the fruit vendor, the kneeling men at the mosque). Zarin sought purification through secular rituals (the bathhouse). Zarin sought purification through religious rituals (the mosque). Zarin lashed out at people who tried to help her (the old lady offering to wash her back at the bathhouse). Zarin found herself doomed to a life of running.

And of course the reason that all of this is so disturbing is that I see Zarin everyday. Zarin is everyone. Zarin is me.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God -- through Jesus Christ our Lord! (see Romans 7). I suspect that this may not be the conclusion to which Shirin Neshat was pointing her audience. But that's the miracle of modern art, isn't it? Meaning is defined by the audience's interaction with the art. And I, for my part, cannot escape this conclusion.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Feeling Kirby...

I raced through the parking lot to the waiting mini-van. A fourteen-year-old freshman in the high school marching band, I had been entirely preoccupied during the entire Thursday evening band practice, and I was so glad when it was over that evening. Jumping into the passenger seat next to my father, I immediately reached for the knob to the radio and tuned directly to WMAN 1400 -- where I knew I could catch up on coverage of the World Series. This October fixture of America's "national pasttime" featured a match-up between the best two teams in baseball: the Atlanta Braves, and my beloved Minnesota Twins. And I hung on every word from the announcer.

I followed baseball religiously in those days. Especially my favorite team: the Twins. And especially my favorite player: Kirby Puckett. My bedroom was covered with posters of the stocky centerfielder. A shoebox under my bed was filled with baseball cards featuring number 34. And the black Wilson baseball glove in the garage featured a well-worn "signature" by Kirby Puckett across the palm... My moods in those days of early adolescence were directly related to the baseball standings on the sports page of the Shelby Daily Globe. And fortunately that year, 1991, turned out to be a happy year for me. The Twins not only won their division, but they went on to capture the American League penant, and Kirby and the Gang kept me awake for seven breathless nights in that World Series. Trailing by three games to two in the best-of-seven series, it was none other than Kirby Puckett himself who rallied the Twins with a monumental performance in Game Six and uncorked the champagne following the final triumph in Game Seven. My memories of that autumn are as vivid and alive as any from my childhood.

But today, I feel a strange sense of loss to realize that my childhood sports hero -- the great Kirby Puckett -- has died, following a stroke. There's a hole in the line-up. A void in the outfield... I'm sad. I'm grieving.

It's illogical for a grown man to feel this way about someone whom I've never met personally -- especially an athlete. His contribution to society was, in the end, less than significant: an entertainer, an icon, a pasttime... Yet in processing the death of Kirby Puckett, I realize that I am processing the death of a part of me. I realize that this is what it means to get older. To watch the transformation and tragedy of losing the people and things that have been meaningful through the years. To slowly be stripped of the symbols that are supposed to define us and to be brought back to the barrenness, nakedness, and vulnerability of infancy. It can be a sobering process -- but it's not unnatural, and it's not to be avoided. It's OK to mourn for Kirby. It's OK to be affected by the loss. And it's OK to move on, renewed in my understanding of my finity in the face of God's greater infinity.

Monday, March 06, 2006

the Reverend Mister Mom

Parenting is perhaps the purest form of pastoring. I'm convinced that no other distinction in life demonstrates true discipleship better being a Dad. And although not uniquely analogous to fatherhood, the ideals of church leadership -- guidance, protection, love, care, self-sacrifice -- are seldom more beautifully expressed than in a healthy parenting relationship.

The first part of this week, I'm taking a bit of extra time to stay at home with my children while Marci enjoys a few days with old friends in old London. Two and a half days of making meals, giving baths, changing diapers, wiping runny noses, reading stories, keeping the house in order... It is the classic "Stay-at-Home-Mom" experience -- helping me to realize how much my wife does on a daily basis -- and it is a unique opportunity to minister to my family... In a sense, this stint as "Mister Mom" is temporarily taking time away from "pastoring" (in the sense of leading the ministry of Zolder50) -- yet I am amazed by how much the smallest interactions between me and my small pre-school children exemplify the heart of pastoring.

Pastoring and parenting both require not just quality time but vast quantities of time as well. Pastoring and parenting happen in the general ebb and flow of life -- in casual meals together, sunny afternoons in the park, the frustration of a long line on a short schedule -- more than in specially manufactured moments. Pastoring and parenting involve tears as well as laughter, enduring temper tantrums as well as enjoying infinite adoration. Both pastoring and parenting insist upon a regular flushing of one's own selfish desires and a continual renewal and refreshment of God's Spirit, on a daily (if not hourly) basis. And both pastoring and parenting involve a keen observation and reflection of the life of Jesus...

In Jesus' last recorded personal interaction with his friend and protegé Peter, the disciple was not commissioned to revolutionize the world... He was not charged with the task of multiplying a billion-person organization to infiltrate every corner of the globe... He was not appointed to preach to the masses, coordinate political movements, or act as the spokesman for a burgeoning system of faith... Rather, like a father blessing his son with the rites of passage to manhood, Jesus uses his last personal interaction with Peter to gently implore: "Feed my lambs... Take care of my sheep... Feed my sheep." "Love me." "Follow me." Serve as the caregiver for the children of God who will be looking for someone to feed them, protect them, gently guide them. This is the work of leading my Church.

And this is what I've done with my day today. Making poffertjes and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches... Retrieving water from the kitchen sink... Wiping tears away following bumps and bruises... Refereeing countless squabbles... Answering a thousand "Why"s... Helping to teach and train the most basic tasks of life -- from eating with a spoon to wiping after using the toilet...

This is what I must do everyday.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Tele2 or Tele666?

Tele2 is a telecommunications company that advertises itself as being, "The Company that Brings You Small Bills." But after the last couple of months of trying to deal with Tele2 (which became our internet service provider after Zonnet was bought out by Versatel which was bought out by Tele2), I feel that a more appropriate slogan would be, "Tele2: The Company that Brings You Big Hassles." And truth be told, the bills brought to us by Tele2 have been far from small...

To date, in fact, Tele2 has stolen almost €2000 from our personal bank account (to which they'd been granted access for automatic withdrawal of our monthly €20 subscription for ADSL service). And despite my best efforts to resolve the situation over the last month of seemingly endless telephone calls and e-mails (including over an hour on the telephone on Friday), Tele2 has refused to give in to my two simple demands:

(1) Terminate our business relationship by 1 April 2006, if not sooner, and (2) Immediately return all money that has been inappropriately drawn from our bank account.

I certainly feel that my demands are reasonable. Back in November, our family was erroneously signed up for a new contract with Tele2 that somehow designated them as both our internet service provider and our telephone service provider. We never consented to this agreement, nor did we sign any kind of contract -- yet we are being held to this date as the beginning of our current business relationship with Tele2, and thus are being told that we cannot leave our "contract" until November of 2006! For whatever reason, the company seems intent on desperately clinging to our €19.95/month subscription for the next six months -- yet given the level of suspicious business practices that have taken place over the last several months, we just want out. Doesn't that seem reasonable?

Beyond the "contract" situation, we're more than a little bit concerned about getting back the money that has been inappropriately withdrawn (or let's just say it: "stolen") from our bank account. Over the last three months, Tele2 has egregiously abused its access to our bank account information to make ridiculously large withdrawals. At the end of December, we were charged €471,80. And at the end of January, we were charged €813,18. So of course, we called Tele2 customer service at the beginning of February to bring the matter to their attention (and to ask for the termination of our account). Yet incredibly, at the end of February, we were charged another €641,99. Imagine my surprise at the latest incident of abuse, when I tried to purchase €6 train tickets on Friday morning and was unceremoniously informed that our account had been overdrawn!

To the credit of Tele2, when I’ve drawn attention these mistakes, customer service representatives have acted appropriately shocked and dismayed. I’ve been verbally promised a refund of these funds on a number of occasions and further assured by e-mail that a refund would be restored to our account… Yet nothing has yet been received. Every call (and there have been many) seems to present a new obstacle to refunding our money and a new date -- always a few weeks out -- for everything to be accomplished. In the meantime, I am being forced to lose interest earning potential and pay overdraft charges for the money that has effectively been stolen by Tele2!

So can anyone blame me for my two basic demands? (1) Terminate our business relationship by 1 April 2006, if not sooner, and (2) Immediately return all money that has been inappropriately drawn from our bank account.

What else can a victim of corporate abuse do? I've decided to give Tele2 one more week to set things right. If the money is not returned by Friday, I will file a formal complaint through ABN-AMRO (my bank) and go through the process to have these funds legally restored to my account. I have already instructed ABN-AMRO to stop payment on the most recent withdrawal, and Tele2 has been restricted from any further access to my bank account. But what else can I do? Call the Consumentenbond (Better Business Bureau)? File a report with the police? Obtain the services of a lawyer?

It can be a bit of an intimidating process, as a small cog in a very large factory. Especially trying to navigate these waters in my second culture, I often feel frustrated and ineffective. It seems ridiculous that customer service representatives cannot transfer an unsatisfied customer to a manager or some person with decision-making power. They've told me that they can't even provide the customer with a different telephone number that can be used for establishing direct contact. Especially for a telecommunications company, it is absurd to be directed to present my complaints through writing a simple letter sent through the postal system...

Yet I will not give up, and I will not be silent. Is it useless to write my rantings and ravings on a web log that with minimal exposure to potential customers or Tele2 company representatives? Yes. Is it immature and assinine to make a devilish caricature of the company logo to accompany my rantings and ravings? Yes. But does it make me feel better to get all of these emotions out of my system? Yes.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sphere of Influence

I thought it would be interesting to follow-up yesterday's post, chronicling my (in)experience in world exploration, with a comparison to the level of international experience among the collected body of my church community, Zolder50.

Since the beginning of our church planting project, some three years ago, I've been keeping a list of the various countries that have been represented at Zolder50. Then, using the geographical plotting website that had been initially recommended by Sander, I simply plugged in the information from my records to create a rough graphical depiction of our church's sphere of influence during its short history in Amsterdam's city center.

It's exciting to see what a breadth of exposures we've had to different cultures... But it's also challenging to notice some of the gaps. For instance, why is almost the entirety of the western coast of South America not represented (while the rest of the continent has been pretty well covered). Central Asia is conspicuously absent, and Africa and the Middle East are also less clearly represented. In particular, it's challenging to note that no one from Turkey has ever visited Zolder50, in spite of the fact that Turks are one of the largest minorities in the city of Amsterdam.

I don't know what to make of these observations, but it's interesting stuff to consider.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Een Beetje Risken

Did you know that the Dutch actually have a unique verb for playing the classic board game, "Risk" (om te risken)? You know, "the game of world domination" where you try to cover the whole globe with game pieces of your color... I just think it's funny to assign a verb to such an obscure part of life. It would be like saying in English, "I risked with a bunch of friends last night" or "I monopolied with my home group over the weekend." Not that it's wrong or right. I'm sure, in fact, that there are equally quirky parts of the English language that sound equally quirky in the ears of a Dutch speaker -- but it can be fun to learn the differences!

At any rate, my good friend Sander found this website where you can chart out your own personal game of Risk -- that is, if you feel comfortable with extending the analogy of world conquest to travel and tourism (follow the link to create your own map). It's kind of fun -- and eye-opening -- to look at the breadth (or what would be the antonym of "breadth"?) of one's experience in light of the breadth of one's inexperience.

I'm humbled by how little of the world I've seen. There's so much more gray on the above map than there is red. And what's more, I fully realize that I've got way more red on the map than what realistically expresses my experience of the world. A few trips to Toronto and Winnipeg, completely contained within a couple hours' of driving along the southern swath of Ontario and Manitoba -- and I've got the whole of Canada... Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Texas, and Maine -- all reddened on the map despite never having set foot on these extremeties of my native United States of America... Three days in Stockholm and two days in Barcelona give me huge chunks of red in Sweden and Spain that are grossly disproportionate to my true understanding of these lands... It's crazy to realize how limited my experience of the world truly is.

And yet in comparison with the average citizen of the world (or even with the elite strata of society from just one hundred years ago) -- my experience of the world is vast and varied. Interesting stuff to think about, isn't it?