Friday, April 28, 2006


Possessed. Occupied. Busy. Taken.

Amsterdam is bezet.

Koninginnedag (Queen's Day) is tomorrow, and the city is caught up in orange fever. Possessed by a spirit of anticipation and joy for this unique Dutch holiday. Occupied, as if by a foreign army, with visitors from across the country and around the world crowding the pleins and parks. Busy and bustling with friends and strangers -- connecting on the streets of Amsterdam, hunting for good deals in the vrijmarkt ("free market," similar to American "garage sales"), listening to good music, enjoying the finer things of life...

I'm taken by the charm of Koninginnedag. I look forward to it every year.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

He's Growing Up

I was just looking at some pictures of Elliot that were taken in Budapest last week and comparing them to similar photographs that were taken at the exact same location exactly three years previously... Wow. I guess you could say that he's growing up.

Have you visited Elliot's blog lately? It's always a good read... I'm proud of my boy.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


As far as I can remember, there are only two men that I've ever known by the name of Herschel. And they both share the distinction of having at times provoked both my ire and admiration.

Herschel Walker was the first person I’d ever heard of with such a name -- a behemoth running back for my favorite football team back when I was an adolescent boy. My brother and I had a poster on the door to our bedroom with Herschel Walker frozen in mid-stride, the purple numerals on his white jersey (#34), looking so strong, so unstoppable, so proud. He had been the hope and joy of the Minnesota Vikings when he was acquired in a blockbuster trade (with a contract worth unprecedented millions)… until he had actually played a couple of seasons in the Minnesota backfield.

In short, Herschel Walker ended up a disaster and a disappointment. He tanked as a player, and -- because of the great risks undertaken to secure his place on the team -- he basically tanked the team in the process. For whatever reason, he never found his rhythm on the Vikings offense -- while his former team (the Dallas Cowboys) found plenty of rhythm by way of the draft picks that were used to acquire new players that eventually even led the Texas team to Superbowl glory. Herschel Walker was shortly traded away to Philadelphia (bound for further obscurity and ineptitude), and the poster on my bedroom door found its way to the trash, as I learned to despise the name of Herschel.

The second uniquely-named man in my experience is an itinerant septuagenarian American pastor by the name of Herschel Martindale. I must confess that -- picking up where I had left off with the last Herschel -- my initial impressions of Mr. Martindale were not abundantly favorable. We were first introduced in the city of Prague. Herschel was speaking at a conference for all missionaries in Europe under Great Commission Ministries (GCM); I was on assignment for a video project commissioned by GCM headquarters that included an interview with this man who had served as one of the founders and visionaries for the movement's work in Europe. Unfortunately, the video shoot did not go very smoothly, as we had a lot of issues in finding a suitable location and battling high wind. Furthermore, both Herschel and I were severely jet-lagged, and we all quickly wearied through the interview process... By the time we finished, it felt like we barely escaped with our sanity.

Even today, through subsequent encounters (in different contexts), I recognize Herschel's caveats. He's not the most powerful or graceful public communicator. He habitually starts off a message with a set of corny jokes. He slips in and out of tangential old stories like a grandfather in an arm chair. And his subject material is very predictable.

In fact, as far as I can tell, everything Herschel Martindale teaches comes back to two main topics: (1) Walking with Jesus through the Power of the Holy Spirit, and (2) Spiritual Warfare. Of course, there are minor variations on these themes... But not much variation... Herschel continually reiterates that we don't need any new information or new tricks; rather, we just need to listen, learn, and apply the basic truths that we've already heard many times -- loving God, loving others, walking in God's Spirit, resisting temptation, and so on... He has said many times, in many variations: “Our problem is not a lack of knowledge; our problem is a lack of obedience.”

Which is a very good point. Although Herschel's recurring teachings could be seen as simplistic and dismissible, I’ve discovered their principles to be unmistakably wise and correct. More than new information and clever insights to obscure concepts of the faith, it is vital to be continually reminded of the basics. And Herschel Martindale excels in the basics -- not just in teaching them, but in living them. Serving as a pastor for over 50 years, he has outlasted hundreds (if not thousands) of dynamic orators, inspiring visionaries, and clever theoreticians. All through resting on two simple points: walking daily with God, and living in cognizance of the daily battles that seek to divert us from this walk.

So I've returned to a fondness and admiration for the name Herschel. Yes, there may be mixed emotions at times. And I'll probably not be bestowing any of my children with such a name. But when it comes down to it, Herschel is my hero.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Eastern Surprises

I remember my first visit to Europe: a video assignment in Prague, the Czech Republic, and in Kiev, Ukraine. I wasn’t expecting too much, honestly, traveling in the eastern parts of Europe...

Growing up during the waning years of the Cold War between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, my impressionable worldview was shaped such that everything good and beautiful and noble was Western and Capitalist... And everything evil and ugly and sinister was Eastern and Communist. Of course, I don’t remember this as being a deliberate program of propaganda -- propagated by my parents or my school teachers. But popular films and television programs and the evening news were definitely slanted. And discussing possibilities of nuclear holocaust in school (I even remember running drills where we’d climb under our desks as if to shelter us from the white hot blast of radiation from a nuclear detonation) -- everything fueled by the vernacular fear of the “Commies” -- I was convinced that nothing good could come from anywhere East of Berlin.

Yet on that trip in 2000, my first visit to Europe, I was shocked by the breathtaking beauty of Prague and the gracious people of Kiev. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, and the memories of that trip still bring a smile to my face. I had expected gray skies, soulless cubic structures forged out of concrete and cinder-block, heavy-jowled people looking sad and angry... so I was completely surprised to see charming cobblestone streets, magnificent baroque spires on spectacular cathedrals, and happy violin players that I encountered in these Eastern European cities. I was charmed. To this date, Prague remains a “top three” city, out of all the parts of the world that I’ve been able to visit...

Budapest is another magnificent city that has enchanted me each time that I’ve seen it. Getting to walk the streets of the city again this week with my son, Elliot, I was again surprised by its beauty and grandeur... Another “Eastern European city” from the former “Communist Bloc” that looks more like a fairy tale than a horror story.

Evil, ugly, and sinister, huh? I guess I was wrong...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Familiarity Breeds...

Familiarity is strange... A truly bizarre phenomenon that defies logic or convention. Yet I can attest to the process because somehow, somewhere along the way, an obscure corner of Hungary has become more familiar to me than many of the well-traveled places in my “homelands” of the United States and the Netherlands.

I spent the first quarter-century of my life in the heartland of America, yet vast and significant portions of the United States are completely unfamiliar to me. I’ve never visited San Francisco or Baltimore, and childhood tourist experiences hardly count for familiarity of the great American metropolises of New York and Los Angeles. The Library of Congress could not hold enough photo albums to feature the countless snapshots of grinning foreign tourists posing in Yellowstone, Disneyland, and Gettysburg -- but there wouldn’t be a single photograph of me from these places, because I’ve never been there. I’ve been fortunate to travel through the majority of American states -- at least to the point where I could check them off from a list -- but even so, I’ve never even set foot in Idaho... or Maine... or Louisiana... to name a few.

Likewise, I’ve been living in the Netherlands for over three years now -- a relatively small nation (just a third the size of the American state of Ohio) -- yet parts of the country are totally unfamiliar. Rotterdam, Utrecht, and Eindhoven are scarcely more than train stops to me. Foreign tourists rave about the cheese market in Gouda, the palaces of Den Haag, and the replica village of Madurodam... but I can only smile and nod with feigned appreciation for these foreign experiences from my adopted homeland. I’ve never been north of Zwolle; thus, the northern third of the Netherlands remains a complete mystery to me. And even Amsterdam holds innumerable pockets of unfamiliarity for me after three years.

Yet here I am -- writing in a very familiar lobby of a very familiar hotel. Every day of this week, we’re eating familiar meals and snacks, drinking familiar-tasting water, and smelling familiar odors in the air. We're taking familiar walks through familiar landscapes. If we went outside the door of this hotel, I could give you directions to the train station, the post office, and the grocery store in town... And yet, this is a relatively obscure conference center, in a relatively obscure village, in a relatively obscure country, in a relatively obscure region of Europe: Balatonkenese, Hungary.

This is our fourth year of participation in the annual Great Commission Europe Staff Retreat, at the Hotel Marina Port on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary. Thus, by the time this week is over, I will have spent a cumulative period of roughly one month of my life in Balatonkenese, Hungary... Crazy to think about, huh? No wonder everything seems so familiar around here...

Sunday, April 16, 2006










Friday, April 14, 2006

Resurrection #4

Molly's greatest joy in life was a warm sunny day beneath her willow tree. It was her special place. The tree's great feathery branches lowered down armfuls of shaded, dappled sunlight upon page after page of her favorite books, allowing her to become absorbed in the adventures of Romona Quimby and Encyclopedia Brown. Its sprawling horizontal branches offered the perfect place to play and pretend. Sometimes the tree would be a tall sailing ship. Sometimes a giant bushy-haired monster. Sometimes an enchanted castle, with secret passageways to hidden locked towers. It seemed that Molly knew every branch, every fork, every knot, every scab of the ancient willow tree. And she could not wish for a better friend.

Indeed, the willow tree was a symbol of the simple life. The quiet life. Sweet air and wide skies and innocence -- all wrapped up in the carefree branches of a monumental weeping willow. Truly, it was a unique tree. Knobby and knotted -- terrifically twisted in some parts and impossibly extended in others -- Molly's tree was a distinct landmark on the rural landscape. It served as a weathervane for the county, pointing away from the wind with its silky arms. It marked the passage of seasons: budding, birthing leaves, scattering slivers of leaves, and sleeping beneath the snow covers in cadence with the natural calendar of the earth. Neighbors gave directions in reference to the old willow. And even beyond the practicalities of the willow tree, everyone admired it for its distinct character; even the grown-ups could easily imagine that it was something from a fairy tale.

So just about everyone was sad to see the uprooted mess on the day after the big storm. It had been one of those viscious, late-summer thunderstorms, where the humid, hazy skies turned green and ghoulish in late afternoon and the radio frantically whispered the words that none of them wanted to hear: tornado warning. Molly's family clustered in the old cellar through the night, horrible crashes puncuating the drumming rain as they tried to rest... And when Molly awoke the next morning, she could scarcely believe the nightmares of the previous evening. When they emerged from the cellar, the sun was shining brilliantly -- as if the sky had never been so clean. The house was still intact, except for a few shingles. The west side of the barn had not done quite as well, but Molly's father calmly intoned that the damage was quite reparable. But Molly's heart sank when she saw the willow tree. Flattened, stripped of its majesty, roots clawing for the soil from which it had been ripped.

The next day her uncle John brought over his chainsaw, and Molly watched in sadness from the front porch as her special tree was systematically reduced to firewood. The long, stringy branches along the extremities of the willow were fed through a monstrous machine that chewed them up and spit out the pulp on the other side -- mulch for the garden next spring. The thicker branches toward the middle of the tree were dismembered and strewn about the yard -- a momentary reminder of the castle towers, very much out of place, until they were later amputated by the cruel teeth of the chainsaw. And the thick, strong trunk that had been Molly's chair, her backrest, her ladder was dissected into a hundred pieces -- stacked along the south face of the house as firewood, to be scorched and burned throughout the coming winter. The arboreal equivalent of a crucifixion.

Perhaps it sounds silly, but Molly cried for that tree. Great gasping sobs of grief and sadness. It was especially hard for her on the sunny days. That August following the big storm was the kind of summer month of which one can typically only dream, warm and fair. And yet every sunny day without her willow tree was like picking a partially-healed scab. Molly found herself neglecting her books. Avoiding her imagination. Moping through the great farm house, bored and lonely.

About a week before school was to start again, Molly awoke with a profound sense of sadness. The sun was streaming through the dusty upper panes of her bedroom window with the kind of promise that Molly knew it would be a glittering day of sunshine and soft breezes. And yet, this made her sad because it made her think of her willow tree. It would have been a perfect day for reading -- her mother had even gotten her a new Romona Quimby book from the library -- yet without the tree, the morning might as well have been that of a rainy school day.

But then Molly noticed something unusual. A surreal smattering of color, on the folds of her bed's comforter, on the floor rug, on the bookshelves... Molly blinked and rubbed her eyes, sitting up in bed to get a better look. Unbelievably, her room was filled with flower petals. Golden-rose-colored petals. They smelled sweet, but subtly so. Surreal. Yet she wasn't dreaming. Rising slowly and with a mounting sense of anticipation, she went to the window to look at what the day has brought. And what should greet her hopeful gaze but the willow tree, waving majestically against the backdrop of a sapphire-blue sky. It was the same old tree, only better. The same characteristic sprawl of boughs and branches. The same familiar knots and curves. The same old willow... only more alive.

Molly ran down the stairs and out the front door, flying over the porch and across the front lawn in her pajamas, and she embraced her old tree. Looking up, she was filled with wonder and joy. Criss-crossed scars were still visible across the trunk and the branches -- where the chainsaw had sliced through the tree flesh -- but the scabs were somewhat smoothed over, absorbed by the character of the tree. And there was something else new and unusual about the tree. Something extraordinary. Although it had never blossomed before, even in spring, today the tree was blooming magnificent flowers the size of melons. Sweet-smelling, warm-hued flowers that filled the tree, filled the air, and filled the surrounding countryside like a royal wedding procession. The old willow was back, to be sure, but it was a supernatural rebirth. A resurrection. And Molly was inexplicably happy.

The giant blossoms didn't go away until winter that year. As they peeled off in late October and early November, Molly gathered up great armfuls of the petals, filling every basket and bowl that she could find throughout the house with beautiful pieces of her willow tree that did not decay or desintegrate -- even in the dry, cold days of February -- and kept her hope alive through the winter. Every year, from that day forward, the spring and summer brought magnificent blooms and sunny days that found Molly curled up with a good book, back against the great scabby trunk of her willow tree, satisfied by a miraculous joy that warmed her memories for all of the rest of the days of her life.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Resurrection #3

Hunger is a silent killer. It hides like a lion in the tall yellow grass, slowly creeping closer and closer, circling its prey, waiting patiently to pick out the old and the young, the weak and the slow. It works wordlessly. Unwavering. Syllables like "famine" and "drought" and "hunger" and "starvation" rarely cross the villagers' lips. But each man and woman and child cannot help but be aware of their predator's silent stalk, at least on a subconscious level. They catch glimpses of it in the incremental protuberance of their collarbones, in the infinitesimal recession of their eye sockets. They know that some of the goats have started to die, that the fields are being slowly swallowed by dust. But no one says anything. Because it feels that words would accelerate the attack.

Mariamu's baby is very sick. Obviously yet unspokenly malnourished. Yet Mariamu has little to offer. She herself is dried up like a fig. The grain supplies are low. And the garden, like their stomachs, is (and has been) empty. Feeling that the predator is near, on its final encirclement, Mariamu makes a radical decision. She will not cower at the outer reaches of the herd, hopelessly prolonging the strike. She will not wait to be taken from behind in a surprise attack. She will stand up and shake a stick at the beast of hunger.

"We will eat!" she proclaims, with surprising strength from such a diminuitive woman. She sends the boys to gather sticks for the fire. She commands Jabari, her husband, to slaughter the goat, and she speaks with such force that he dare not refuse -- even though it means the crucifixion of their family's only source of milk. Bashira, as the oldest daughter, is charged with the task of preparing the last of the vegetables; and Mariamu scrapes out every last grain of rice into the pot with firmness and determination.

They work with silent anticipation. Each knows that this shall be their last meal, but they will make it worth something. They will face their killer with courage and conviction. And they will die with the taste of meat on their lips, the smell of roasted potatoes in their nostrils, the memory of satisfaction fresh in their minds.

As the family gathers to share their last meal together, there is both happiness and sadness. Happiness for its anticipation; sadness for its finality. In truth, this "feast" of theirs is nothing so impressive as that for which one might have hoped: tough old goat meat, a scant handful of rice, a few shrivelled potatoes... But as always, no one says anything. Mariamu nods to Jabari, and he dutifully invokes a blessing over their food. Then they reach for the food.

Yet as their arms cross over the food -- each one reaching for their favorite final delicacies in a tangled thatching of brown, skinny arms like a wicker basket -- something magical happens. Their sunken eyes perceive no change at all, as the transformation takes place beneath the leathery blanket of appendages. But as their hands pull back toward their mouths, they are astonished by the metamorphosis that has taken place in their feast. Their meager spread has been somehow multiplied, colorized, hydrated, inflated, increased. And in an instant they find themselves enjoying the feast of their lives. Jabari's mouth bleeds the supernaturally sweet juice of the freshest mango he has ever been tasted. The boys ravenously devour thick slices of the moistest, most succulent lamb that has ever crossed their lips. Bashira slowly savors a mouthful of corn so sweet and so crisp that it makes her cry. Both of the baby's hands are covered in sticky rice -- her mouth smeared and smiling for the first time in weeks. And Mariamu... Mariamu can't get enough bread: soft, warm, satisfying sustenance that fills her cheeks, fills her stomach, and fills her soul with resurrected hope. After five minutes of silent satisfaction, their mouths open enough to start laughing and singing. They trade giant platters of their favorite foods. They drink liters and liters of the finest water that they've ever tasted -- so wet and fresh and refreshing that it could not possibly have come from the well that the foreigners built for the village so many years ago. The water washes with the meat, the bread, the vegetables, the fruit -- to restore the family that had been on the brink of starvation. Their bodies are replenished supernaturally, such that there is no danger of overeating. And no matter how much they eat, no matter how much their stomachs fill, there is always a sense of room for more. And there is no end to the supply of their miraculous feast.

Things become different from that day, forward. After everyone cares to eat or drink no more, the rest of the water is set outside, in the garden area, and instantly a fresh living spring bubbles up from the ground beneath the pot -- crumbling through the clay and cascading through the deep cracks in the earth to create a creek, a stream, a river that ran alongside the village and into the bush. Where the seeds of the mangoes and grapefruits are tossed into the garden area, they sprout and grow overnight creating a magnificent orchard to surround the mouth of the new river -- a place of provision for the biggest, most beautiful, most flavorful fruit that anyone could ever hope to taste. Leftover potatoes and corn and rice from the feast are planted in the sand-choked fields on the fringes of the village and instantly multiplied into magnificent fields of food that provide more than enough for everyone in the village. And somehow, no one is surprised when a flock of strong, fat goats -- udders bulging with milk -- appears the following morning, raiding the new fields and lapping water from the new river.

As the villagers regain their strength and their livelihood, the great hunger predator has no choice but to sulk back into the wilderness -- the only unsatisfied observer. And as the people grow and multiply and journey, the river and the produce of the fields grow and multiply and journey so that no one in the entire world is ever hungry again.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Resurrection #2

Gary and Mara had a good life -- not perfect, but good. They had jobs that they mostly enjoyed, which provided enough income to support their modest lifestyle. They lived on a quiet street in a medium-sized town, which could have been perceived as somewhat boring, but which suited them just fine. Their primary desire was to raise a family and grow old together. And after six years of marriage, five years of home ownership, and two-and-a-half years of parenthood, they were well on their way. Their daughter, Hannah -- a riot of strawberry-blonde curls and giggling energy -- was a source of profound joy (except when served broccoli for dinner). And to complement and compound their joy, a second baby was due to arrive within days.

Such expectation! Everyone was excited for the new child to be born. Hannah had pinned her hopes on a baby sister. Gary was hoping for a boy. But Mara was quietly confident that it was another little girl. All the same, they had decided to keep things a surprise -- not learning the sex of the baby ahead of time. Still, the family was more than ready for this new little person to grace their home. Names were picked out: Christopher James for a boy, or Caitlain Elizabeth for a girl. The old "guest room" had been repainted a fresh shade of soft yellow, transforming it into the new "baby room." Hopes for the future were high. Thus, when Mara started labor on April 10, just two days before the actual due date, they rushed to the hospital with a natural rush of expectation and joy.

Finally... after nine and a half hours of hard labor, Gary and Mara were prepared for the big surprise when the baby was delivered... A boy? A girl? After the last push, they waited for the doctors to proudly present them with their new son or daughter. But instead, the baby was quickly whisked to a corner of the room where five medical professionals clammored and quickly confirmed what their hearts had worst feared in that fraction of a second when they had seen the lifeless body of their little baby. She -- it was a girl -- had been stillborn...

Stillborn. It's a word which sounds so much prettier than what it really is: Dead.

Dead... The baby had gone before she came, strangled by her own umbilical cord in the birth canal. This much was clear. But in the hours and days following this moment of clarity, chaos and confusion took over. A flood of emotions and practicalities blurred together meaninglessly. Communication and condolences, paperwork and prayers, flowers and funeral arrangements... Everything coated in a thick film of loneliness and emptiness.

Emptiness. Mara's body cried out for the baby that she would never hold. The hormones in her body raged, oblivious to the fact that there was no pregnancy, no baby. Her breasts were at the point of bursting, ready to gush their life-giving milk. Her uterus contracted sharply at twenty minute intervals, each stab of pain a reminder of her emptiness. Empty abdomen, empty arms, empty eyes -- tears could not be stopped. Meanwhile, Gary was in a state of shock. Completely numb -- suckerpunched by the reality of his dead daughter. In talking to concerned relatives and family friends, he found himself using words he never thought he would live to say or experience. His daughter was dead. His daughter's body was being prepared at the funeral home. He would be burying his daughter on Tuesday...

A funeral. Of course they were sad. Of course they were grieved. Yet everything within them rebelled against the funeral planning process. This girl -- flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone -- was a stranger to them. They had never held her tiny hand; they had never kissed her pink lips; they had never looked into her searching eyes. They didn't know this girl. They only knew the hopes of a daughter which had been crucified in the delivery room that morning. In the end, of course, they went through with the funeral because everyone said it would be good to "get some closure." They decided on a closed casket. A simple service at the funeral home with only their closest friends and family. An awkward good-bye to their stranger-daughter.

Awkward silence. The funeral home was filled with a muffled stillness that felt as unnatural as the circumstances of their situation. In the final moments before the funeral, Gary paced the parlor, looking distracted and distant. He was wearing his charcoal suit. Mara was wearing a black dress that her sister had picked out from her from the JC Penney -- a flurried purchase upon the discovery that Mara had nothing in her wardrobe suitable for a funeral. And why should she? She hated black. Yet here she was -- black dress, black heels, a black purse providing Hannah an endless supply of Tic-tacs, to keep her occupied through the experience that no young family should ever have to experience.

"Gary?" The funeral director interrupts the father's panther pacing. "Would you and Mara like a few minutes alone with your daughter?" The husband and wife look at each other, momentarily confused. No, not Hannah. With her. With Caitlain. They nod reluctantly, passing off Hannah to Mara's mother, and they follow the funeral director through the double doors to the tiny room with the tiny casket craddling their tiny girl. For the last time, the funeral director lifts up the lid of the casket. And there she is. A baby lying perfectly still. A wax figure. Mara starts to sob. The dam holding back Gary's emotion finally breaks, too. They sob together. And hold each other. And weep. And weep.

And weep. The walls start to weep with them. The yellow carnations on the lower half of the casket start to weep with them. The heavy gray skies start to weep with them. And then... another voice joins the din. But not weeping -- merely crying. Crying like bubbling water. Crying like laughter. The funeral director goes white in the face. Gary and Mara look up, their hope resurrected. Mara is surprised by a familiar sensation that her body has not experienced in almost two years: a let-down reflex. Her breasts are engorged by the sound of a crying baby. Her baby. As if in a dream -- though it's far too physical for a dream -- she reaches down into the casket, scooping beneath the white satin, and she brings her flailing baby daughter to her bosom.

Alive! Pink and vibrant. Strong and shrill. Caitlain's lungs fill with thick mouthfuls of air and empty with rippling noise. The lump in Gary's throat changes to an ecstatic shriek that cannot be contained. He starts shouting and jumping up and down and running through the double-doors of the viewing room. His mother-in-law stares open-jawed while he picks up little Hannah and swings her around, laughing and crying and yelling. He runs out into the lobby of the funeral home, shaking hands with surprised mourners. News of the miracle quickly ripples among the crowd. And suddenly everyone is hugging -- not sad funeral hugs, but joyful delivery room hugs. Gary's a dad again! Mara's a mom again! Hannah's a sister again!

It's unbelievable... Yet disbelief is swallowed up in joy as baby Caitlain is brought out to be introduced to the assembled family and friends. Sated by a belly full of milk, the baby is a perfect picture of life. Such a living, breathing, sleeping newborn baby creates a stark contrast to the crushed velvet and muted colors of a funeral home, a place of death and grief... And yet there is nothing to do but believe.

And rejoice.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Resurrecting Resurrection

So this is supposed to be the time of the year that we observe the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, right? This is supposed to be something very meaningful… very sacred... very holy. Right?

But truth be told, these words -- crucifixion and resurrection -- well, these words are just a shade better than meaningless to me... Such esoteric terminology... I mean, I kind of understand what the words mean -- in that I understand the technical definitions of them, and I know that the one is supposed to be bad and the other is supposed to be good… But this is really not so different from the way in which I understand things like "taking out a second mortgage" or "rebuilding an automotive engine" or "going in for a root canal" or "rolling over a 401(k) plan" or "digitally remastering"... These catch-phrases have slightly positive or negative connotations, and certainly there are some people who fully grasp the meaning of such utterances. But (let's be honest) I am not among these some. My head may be nodding -- as if I'm very wise and "with it" -- while my broker talks about the fiscal advantages of some new tax ruling, or while the guy at the bicycle repair shop explains what needs to be done to get my Batavus back on the road again... But inside my head, everything is reduced to the level of "Hmm, that sounds sort of good" or "Hmm, that sounds sort of bad" and "How much is this going to cost me?" And as ashamed as I may be to confess incompetance in the areas of business or mechanics (or dentistry or technology)... I'm even more ashamed to confess my general lack of appreciation for the basic foundations of the Christian faith -- that is, the crucifixion and the resurrection -- which define my career, my family, and my character.

So you see, I'm stuck in the crossfires of clichés, where crucifixion and resurrection are not such meaningful words to me. They have been emasculated -- stripped of their power and purpose. We might as well talk about Jesus going in for a root canal and taking out a second mortgage three days later.

This week, I want to recapture the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection.

I want to feel the story of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection on a visceral level. Yes, I want to bask in the beauty of the miraculous events of the "Holy Week" -- but I want my guts to be twisted in the process. I want to feel the horror, the embarrassment, the pain, the incredulity, the euphoria of those final days and hours in Jerusalem... The story of the crucifixion and resurrection are definitely dramatic, but it's also disturbing at times, too. Of course, living out the realities of the crucifixion and resurrection as a follower of Jesus would have been revolutionary -- but it would have also been revolting. Think about it... a maimed Messiah hanging from the Roman cross in public humiliation, spit and vomit and blood everywhere, a corpse revived... definitely revolutionary, and definitely revolting. The sense of victory over sin and death would have surely been sublime, but wouldn't it have been a bit surreal, too? Surprising, but also shocking. Miraculous, but also macabre. Glorious, but also grotesque. Inspiring, but also intimidating.

In the coming "Holy Week," we've got a lot to think about. Yes, we need to commemorate the crucifixion. And yes, we need to remember the resurrection. But before we can do this, we must crucify our preconceived notions of crucifixion. And resurrect resurrection.

Friday, April 07, 2006


I used to think that orange was an ugly color. In the cool navy-blue and crimson days of the mid-1990s, orange was the color of outdated burger franchises and rusting automobiles. Orange was obnoxious, tacky, tasteless. Orange was only interesting to long-haired middle-aged freaky people stuck in the 1970s -- the only ones who would obliviously employ "groovy" colors as sunset and avocado and burnt siena for interior decorating or clothing apparel.

But somewhere, somehow -- something has changed along the way. And now orange means, well, something. Something warm. Something beautiful. Something personal... And what can I say? I like orange.

Orange is the color of Bowling Green State University. A place vivid, bright, alive in my memory -- where I became me. The color orange fits the memories perfectly: so vivid and bright and alive. Anderson Arena filled with orange shirts and orange hats -- climbing the heights of hysteria on the backs of Antonio Daniels and Anthony Stacey. An orange wool cap, emblazoned with a brown falcon logo, given to me by a friend. Orange corridors. Orange parties. Orange flyers... Falcon Orange.

Orange is the color of Holland. A place unusual, riotous, flavorful -- where my family has become us. The color orange fits the memories perfectly: so unusual and riotous and flavorful. The Museumplein filled with orange shirts and orange hats -- listening to the music and drinking the wine of Koninginnedag. An "oranje voetbal" shirt, emblazoned with a black royal lion logo, unsuspectingly purchased on the same day as a friend and traveling companion. Orange cafes. Orange streamers. Orange everything... Het Huis van Oranje.

Orange is the color of the Zolder Lounge -- so much so that it's often simply referred to as the "oranje kamer" or the "orange room." A place warm, intimate, gezellig -- which is exactly my association of the memories born in the space. Idealistic Americans smearing orange paint on the walls, orange curtains on the windows, orange pillows on the floors. An orange sunlight filtering through the windows in late afternoon and causing orange ripples to dance on the orange ceiling. Prayer. Food. Conversation... Zolder Orange.

I was thinking about all of this after seeing some recent pictures on friends' blogs. I don't know exactly what it is -- but there is something about photographs taken in the orange-reflected hues of the Zolder Lounge that seems to make anything and anyone appear instantly and effortlessly vintage, classic, poignant. The kind of pictures that the individuals featured within the shot will look at one day with their children and sigh -- maybe with a fond "tsk" of the tongue -- to remember the golden days of our youth and creativity and naivete. The above picture is an example of this, taken from the early days of the Zolder, featuring Todd and Jonas in the "orange room." It just seems to express to feeling of the Zolder -- simple, relaxed, and orange. Other examples of such contemporarily nostalgic images can be found in Marco's pictures, from earlier this week... or in Jenni's pictures from last week. If you take a look at the pictures, I think you'll understand what I mean.

It's great to be orange.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sunshine When She's Gone

Do you remember that scene from "Notting Hill" where the Hugh Grant character is walking through the street market? It's kind of an introspective sequence, set to music ("Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone") -- and it's very cleverly staged and executed, with a kind of subtle brilliance.

I used to think that the scene was supposed to represent the passage of time -- summer sunshine blending into autumn's rustling leaves blending into winter's blowing snow blending into spring's flowers and fresh air -- only appearing to be a five-minute walk by the lead character of the film... You know, cinematic devices such as this are not always meant to be interpreted literally.

But today, I remembered that such a five-minute journey is completely realistic -- maybe even likely -- in Northern Europe during early spring.

When I left my house this morning to ride into work, it was a clear and sunny day -- blue skies overhead, songbirds in the trees, and a soft breeze at my back. But within the first kilometer of riding, the skies quickly clouded over to that characteristic Amsterdam gray. Every now and then the sun would peak through a hole in the clouds, and I enjoyed a brief moment of warm sunshine as I stopped along the Wibautstraat, waiting for the light to turn green. But by the time I reached the Amstel (within 100 meters of the Wibautstraat intersection, even), the wind had whipped up in my face and cold sheets of rain were starting to soak my thighs. By the time I reached the Frederickplein, sleet was painfully pelting my forehead. Then, as I swerved past the Rijksmuseum and into the Leidseplein, the sun burst forth again and it was spring once again. Blue skies, songbirds, soft breeze, and everything... And all of this within 10 minutes of riding.

Actually, I kind of enjoy this wrestling match between winter and spring. Such confused days seem to happen every year in the Netherlands, about this time of the year. And to me, they are a sign of power, change, and hope. And while I don't exactly enjoy the feeling of tiny pieces of ice cutting into my scalp as I ride my bicycle, the golden beams of sunshine on the other side of the road make it more than liveable. It's great weather for introspection.

Monday, April 03, 2006

They start 'em young these days.

I have helped Elliot (my four-year-old son) start a blog: Elliot says...

The mind of a child always seems to provide incredible insight to our world of conventions, coded conversations, and convoluted cultures. So why shouldn't a four-year-old have a blog? "A father poses questions and a son answers directly, honestly, and candidly with the directness, honesty, and candor that only a four-year-old can bring..."

Of course, I serve as the moderator and stenographer for Elliot, seeking to preserve the thoughts and words of Elliot himself, as much as possible. Each post begins with a question that I pose to Elliot (thus, the subject headings are my words). Elliot's words form the primary context of the post itself, with occasional supplementation from me (marked in italics).

Some might accuse me of exploiting my child, for the sake of my blogging obsession... But I made sure that Marci was OK with it. And I prefer to think of this as a father sharing one of his passions with his son. Elliot sits up on my lap, between my arms as I type at the computer, and we have a conversation together where Elliot is the center of attention. What could be better than that? It's a win-win-win situation -- for Elliot, for me, and for Elliot's "public" (which will at least include a couple of grandparents).

Please feel free to visit the site and leave him a comment. I'll make sure that each comment is read out-loud to him (and maybe even responded to, depending on what Elliot desires). It's a fun experiment, at any rate...

Saturday, April 01, 2006


I'm wearing dark-colored medium-tight blue jeans and a gray-blue form-fitting pullover shirt. Mottled-blue cotton socks and Adidas Samba's on my feet. Bushy hair and a smooth-shaven face... Pretty typical.

In evaluating my physical appearance, I realize I am not quite American anymore. My jeans are too tight for American preferences -- unless you're an cowboy or a ballet dancer -- form-fitting around the thighs and flared at the bottoms. I would have never worn "dress socks" with jeans during my days in the USA; standard-issue white tube socks always seemed to do the trick... But even playing basketball back in America one time, since moving to Amsterdam, Matt Olszewski had to loan me some socks so I wouldn't look like the clueless foreigner that I had become. If my old friends from BGSU, like Matt Eldon and Gregg Stark, could see my hair this afternoon -- they would point and laugh at "The Buuuush" on top of my head that used to be a sign of an apathetic college student but is now the sign of, well, me. I tried letting my beard grow out a little bit this week -- which Americans can do, because we're actually capable of generating moderately thick facial hair in less than three months (unlike many Nederlanders) -- but I had to shave it all off after a few days because it was itching so much and making me feel silly every time I looked in the mirror. I reflect back on the time when my family hosted Guillaume -- the French foreign exchange student -- remembering his tight clothes, bushy hair, and "Euro" swagger... And I can see a little of myself in the reflection. I start to become anxious about how I will be perceived when I'm back in Ohio this summer, because I remember some of the amused glances from Guillaume's days. Of course, he could get away with it because he was French. But what's a Shelby boy doing looking like this?

Of course, the irony of it is that I'm painfully aware -- simultaneously -- that I'm not quite European either. My jeans are actually a bit too roomy for European tastes -- in that I can still use my front pockets (which also happens to be so typical of practically-minded Americans). The nondescript long-sleeved shirt that I'm wearing would have once been considered "dressy" enough to wear to school presentations or Sunday morning church; but here, I feel that my shirt is at the very social extremities of "casual." I only wear sweatshirts or T-shirts now on Saturdays, when I plan to be staying at home for most of the day... And while nobody in Holland would comment about my socks, they would take offense at my shoes -- because you're only supposed to wear sport-shoes if you're playing sports. My hair length is good enough for European standards, but I don't gel it up often enough to really fit in. So I either get a super-buuuush as the wind whips my hair as I bicycle through the city, or I get smug tourist-disdainful looks from the natives if I wear a stocking cap (they seem to be considered out of place anywhere other than on the ski slopes) to keep my hair down and my ears warm.

I'm a mutant half-breed. I'm somewhere in between cultures. And not just in my sense of fashion -- but in my music, my art, my politics, my language, my diet, my athletics, my affections, my hopes, my fears, my personality, my tics... I'm a freak by-product of straddling two continents. Not quite American. Not quite European.

I am Eurican; hear me roar.