Saturday, December 30, 2006

Progress Report - Number Umpteen

I fear that I may become boring at times, with my relatively repetitive updates about the seemingly snail-paced progress on renovation of our church's new ministry space at the Herengracht 88... But I sometimes feel that I don't have much else to talk about these days. Our church's relocation has been quite consuming -- not just on the practical level (i.e. number of hours in my week), but also on the physical level (I haven't really gotten to immerse myself in any good ol' fashioned physical labor since summer jobs during my early university days) and on the emotional level... It's hard to explain, but I feel like this project has a metaphysical dimension to it.

At any rate, we had a couple more "work days" at the Kelder this week.

We didn't get quite as many volunteers as I might have anticipated (or at least hoped for) in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day... But the people who did come by to help worked hard (like Avantia, pictured above), and we were able to take some significant steps forward. As you can see from the pictures, the two biggest rooms of are nearing completion. Ninety percent of the surface area in this area has been painted. Our furniture, appliances, and boxes have all been moved in, neatly stacked, and covered. We just have a bit of trimwork to finish up and some general touch-up work -- and then we'll be as done as possible... for the time being (the kitchen, hallway, and the two smaller rooms in the other half of the facility are still under construction by the contractors).

The Lounge area (pictured above) has become a bit of a personal project for me (although, let me be quick to point out there have been numerous other individuals who have also worked extremely hard on this space). In my original estimation of the renovation work required, I anticipated that this room would be a relatively "quick fix" (famous last words) in comparison to the other parts of the facility... However, we found ourselves unexpectedly spending hours and hours in scraping and sanding the ceilings... only to be followed by unexpected hours and hours in preparing the walls for painting... only to be followed by unexpected hours and hours of applying layers and layers of paint (some walls have now received no less than five layers of paint!).

But it's finally getting close to being finished (or at least so I assume).

There's been a lot of discussion about the choice in paint colors (for which I cannot take credit or criticism -- as I let other, more qualified, individuals make the decisions about aesthetics). Some fear that the shades of brown will be too dark and overwhelming -- creating a cave-like effect in a room with no natural lighting... But personally, I've come to really like the brown. It's earthy and strangely warm. It's reminiscent of the famous "brown cafes" celebrated for their gezelligheid in the surrounding Jordaan neighborhood of Amsterdam. The color seems to flatten out a lot of the imperfections in the walls, and it creates a nice resting place for the light. Especially once we get some furniture in there, and some artwork on the walls (it's intended to be a sort of art gallery, in addition to a lounge), I think it will be a very cozy space.

So that's the progress report from the Herengracht these days. Keep praying for us. I'll keep you informed of our progress (for better or worse)...

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Which Way to Waterloo

The Napoleonic allusion is a bit obvious -- perhaps even cliché -- but under the circumstances, I find it simply irresistible. A 170-cm (5'8") Frenchman trying to push my solid frame over the threshhold, nervously pushing buttons on his mobile phone and crying out: "Gyet out! Gyet out! Zis is my a-part-a-ment!" He did not care if it was as cold as the Russian tundra outside; he was determined to maintain his heading at all costs.

After a brief moment of resistence, I decided that it wasn't worth the struggle -- though I must confess that I momentarily considered how enjoyable it would be to manhandle such a thorn in my side. In the end, I chose to step deliberately and carefully out into the hallway. After all, I had just been trying to do a simple check-out -- a business formality, really. And if the diminuitive French tenant was going to handle things like this, then so be it.

The troublesome business relationship with this particular renter was symbolic of the greater struggle experienced by the non-profit organization for which I work, over the course of four years in trying to navigate the real estate market of central Amsterdam. Although the stichting had been set up to provide the legal framework for establishing a church in Amsterdam's city center, we also found ourselves enmeshed in the business world when the church ended up renting a space that happened to include a number of extra apartments intended to be used as short-term rental space for business clientele. It was a brilliant idea, really, to creatively generate income for the notoriously high start-up costs of a new ministry project... but unfortunately, the idea backfired on us. We quickly found ourselves in over our heads, under declining market conditions and general inexperience. And even now, as we're nearing the completion of our unentanglement from the situation -- which I can only hope and pray that we are -- nothing ends up coming easy.

In the matter of this particular check-out procedure, I had come at the tenant's request -- his urging, as a matter of fact. He didn't want to wait for our originally-scheduled check-out time; he wanted to depart for Paris immediately. So I obliged him... And the check-out was actually going relatively smoothly. The apartment was in decent shape. We were good to go...

Until the question of payment came up.

We were fully prepared to settle up with the moving costs, as had been (albeit reluctantly) agreed. But when I asked for verification of payment for his last three months of rent -- a routine request, really, given that the man was about to slip across the border and disappear into his native French society -- Monsieur Bonaparte threw a hissy-fit. His face turned the color of spoiled tomatoes, he paced dramatically while waving his arms in the air, and he just - kept - yelling. The cacophony was terrific: he was complaining to his friend en Francais, I was talking on the mobile phone to my colleauge in 't Nederlands, we were going back and forth with each other in English... And, well, the situation just kept escalating. If I do say so myself, I managed to stay incredibly cool, and calm, and collected while the angry Frenchman raged -- but my composure seemed to only fuel the tenant's rage. And I could see that we were rapidly approaching the threshhold scene, both literally and figuratively.

So under the hurried counsel of businessmen and lawyers, I walked away from the situation. Napoleon may be choosing to lay siege to the empty apartment -- and I can imagine that there may be more fireworks in the future. But it seems that our position is quite fortified: a veritable Moscow in January (or, if Biblical analogies are more your thing, you can think of it like Jehosaphat's Judah up against the Ammonites and Moabites, i.e. 2 Chronicles 20).

And even though the present situation presents some hassles and hindrances, I can't help but hope that Waterloo is just around the corner.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Christmas Love Story

Christmas is a season of love, and light, and magic… and well, so is this story. It’s a Christmas story from long ago—so long ago, in fact, that its precise date has escaped recollection. But rest assured: it’s only the day of the calendar that has been forgotten… because the rest of that day was imprinted on my consciousness like a footprint in a field of virgin snow.

It was, in fact, a snowy day—a winter day. Not like in the thick of winter—not harsh and dry and bitter. No, it was a day of new snow—soft and romantic, like cool white butterflies dancing. The gentle flakes were sparse and sporadic on the drive down to Columbus, and the two of us felt like we were in the opening credits to a romantic holiday film where something unforgettable happens.

Of course, as with any day consigned to the distant past, the memories of that day are vague and incomplete. I don’t remember parking the car, for instance, or stopping to fill up with gasoline at any point—though I’m sure we did… But I do remember walking through the zoo with her, gloved-hand-in-gloved-hand, two of the very few visitors to be taking in the subfreezing sights by the last hours of cool gray daylight preceding the more popular “Lights Before Christmas.” As we walked along the way, oblivious to the rest of the world, I remember stealing a moment behind the sea lion tank for a kiss… Ah, I remember the moment well. The kiss was sweet—like cinnamon—and long. Warming. It would not be decent of me to speak of it more than this… But it was a memorable kiss.

As darkness fell, we continued to wander through the zoo, which took on the appearance of the Land of Sugar Plum Fairies as the twinkling lights glowed from every snowy edge and orifice. We strolled past an open fire which was attracting the bowing adoration of many a frozen stranger. To our amazement, chestnuts actually roasted over this open fire—just like in the song. The experience seemed too classic to pass up, so we bought ourselves a bag: our first time eating roasted chestnuts… It turned out that the idea of the chestnuts turned out to be more appetizing than the chestnuts themselves… So that was likely also our last time eating roasted chestnuts. Still at least we could say that we did it together.

Shortly after the chestnut experience, the pace of the snowfall started to pick up. I guess you could say that it was becoming a snow storm—still a generally pleasant, romantic sort of snow storm, but a snow storm nonetheless. I still vividly remember the bombardment of thick, fat flakes—actually more like small snow balls more than flakes—being playfully tossed from the heavens. Since we had been out in the elements for several hours, it seemed especially appealing to hail one of the horse-drawn carriages to take a little ride, to enjoy the scenery from a different vantage point and to momentarily escape the pummeling snow storm. In the back of the black carriage, we huddled close as we listened to the clop-clop-clopping of the horses’ powerful hooves penetrating through the piling snow to the stone surface beneath—and then, as we rode, we heard another sound. A familiar sound, but strangely incongruous with the wintry setting. We listened again, more carefully, to verify what we had heard… and after a hushed moment’s pause, punctuated solely by the ticking equestrian cadence, we heard it again beyond the shadow of a doubt: thunder echoing through the gardens. The snow was familiar enough to us, born Midwesterners. The thunder, too, was a regular experience throughout decades of Ohio summers… But “thunder-snow”—it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Absolutely unforgettable, much like the rest of that day.

At the end of the evening, we found ourselves back on the road, driving home through the snow in a Ford Taurus the color of glüwein (I remember the car because it was my parents’ car, a special car). The windshields were wick-wick-wicking away watery snow, and we were enraptured in the moment, saying very little. Just listening to Christmas music. And holding hands… And falling deeper and deeper in love.

On that car ride home from the Columbus Zoo, in the confines of that Ford Taurus soaring through the snow-streaked night, I knew that I wanted to spend a great many more Christmases with the woman sitting beside me. I wanted to savor her cinnamon kisses, warm my hands in her tender touch, drink up the sights and sounds of Christmas together for years to come.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done ever since. The best part about this Christmas story is that it’s not over. We can’t just tack on some corny “And they lived happily ever after” line to finish out the account. The story of these two young lovers is still in the early chapters of its ongoing development. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Sensation of a Solstice

Ever since moving to Amsterdam -- 52 degrees and 22 minutes north of the Equator -- this day has been an important day on the calendar: the 21st of December... the Winter Solstice.

There's simply no getting around it. The natural phenomenon of the Earth's revolution around the sun has a visceral effect on an Amsterdammer. The darkness creeps in on the day, like a dark fox hunting its helpless prey, circling in on the sunrise and sunset each day from June to December. It's unnoticeable at first, just a few minutes here, a few minutes there... But as the apex of darkness draws ever closer, the sensation is attacking, strangling, overwhelming. These days, we must will ourselves to get out of bed at the "usual time" -- even though the sun will do no such thing until hours later -- and again we are forced to don safety lights in the middle of the afternoon, as we ride our bicycles to complete a day which the sun is content to finish hours before us.

Ironically, when the winter solstice arrives -- the shortest day of the year -- it is actually a time for celebration. Not celebration because the day is so temporary, so weak, so dim... but celebration because it's the beginning of the end. From this day forward, each day becomes a little bit longer, a little bit lighter. And such a realization is a subtly significant source of hope.

To be honest, I can understand why the pagan religions of northern Europe -- the Norse, the Celts, the Druids, and whatnot -- celebrated the winter solstice as a holy day. And even though Christians are sometimes criticized for adopting such pagan holy days for their own holy days, I can understand why early Christians decided to appoint Christmas to fall roughly around the same time as the winter solstice. The parallels are beautiful.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of hopes for a coming Messiah in the following way: "The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine." Zechariah the priest, just a generation before Jesus echoed Isaiah's prophecy, saying, "Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace." The first chapter of John metaphorically speaks of Jesus as "the light (that) shines in the darkness." And Jesus himself later spoke of himself as "the light of the world..."

Anticipation and renewal and hope -- such natural responses to the beginning of darkness's end at this time of the year -- found their fulfillment in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Light of the world.

So... Happy Solstice. And Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Getting There

We're getting there. We really are. We still haven't completely arrived... but we're getting there.

I like the above photograph of my friend Jeroen, standing in front of an empty moving truck with his arms out to the sides as if to say: "Ta-da!" or "We did it!" or "Wie wist dat het zo makkelijk zouden zijn!?!?" It definitely seems like we're turning a corner in our church's relocation process, and yesterday was a key step in getting us to such a point.

Our work days over the last couple of weeks did not go quite as smoothly as we would have hoped. We kept running into unexpected obstacles (isn't that always that case?) -- some caused by our own stupid mistakes and some caused by unavoidable circumstances -- but we pressed through it all. And even though all of the painting is not completely finished (not even in the two big rooms, which we had been hoping to complete by this point), enough of it was done that we could move our church's vast collection of stuff from its temporary storage location to our new ministry center on the Herengracht (making it more accessible for when we are completely finished with the painting and avoiding the extra €400 per month in storage fees). So that's precisely what we did yesterday: we moved our stuff in.

Again, as with each stage of the process -- from moving out of the Zolder, to fixing up the Kelder, to moving into the Kelder -- we had the joy of working together as a team, as a family, to make things happen (this sense of teamwork is very evident from the above photograph, where Leslie and Maria offer "moral support" as Kor does the dirty work and Andrew stands by with a strange look on his face!). Seriously, I'm consistently surprised by how much fun we can have together -- even while we're working our butts off (and I should certainly mention that Leslie and Maria were not sitting down for the whole day!).

Working on the Kelder end of things (we had a separate crew at the storage facility, loading things up), I really enjoyed the time with Jozalien, Leslie, Kor, Maria, (myself), Andrew, and Claire (pictured above, from left to right). We decorated our piles of stuff with Christmas lights, we sang songs and pretended that we were playing "Tetris" with the boxes and furniture -- and we worked hard to accomplish our objectives for the day.

So you still couldn't exactly say that we're "moved in" to our new facility. More or less, we just transferred storage facilities. But still, I feel good to know that we're getting there. Langzaam maar zeker -- slowly but surely -- we're getting there.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I don't know what my old professors from BGSU's telecommunications department would think... or the production staff from good ol' WBGU-TV27... But for the first time in a couple of years, I've made a video.

My side of the family decided to send personal Christmas gifts this year which focused on our family connections (as opposed to adding to our collections of material possessions)... So this video pageant was our offering for the holiday (together with a personal letter, looking back on some old memories -- family members should be getting their copy in the mail soon!).

I thought others might enjoy seeing it as well. So... um, yeah -- enjoy! And Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Work Days #2-6

Things are moving right along at the new ministry facilities on the Herengracht... I haven't had much time behind my computer in the last week, and in fact I still have to leave for another work day in just a few minutes. But I thought I could at least post a few more pictures (from yesterday).

It's definitely a work zone in there...

The help from volunteers has been great...

We're having a lot of fun together...

Soon, we hope to be done!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Work Day #1

We had our first real work day, yesterday, on the new ministry facilities at Herengracht 88. You may remember that our church has a history of "work days" -- not always with the most positive of connotations attached to such a phrase -- but let me tell you, at least from my personal perspective, it felt good to be in there yesterday, finally getting our hands dirty and making things happen together as a church community. The renovation project had been stalled for a little while, but things took a big jump forward yesterday -- and the situation is more optimistic than it's been for a long time.

I love the effect of sawdust on photography. From a purely technical standpoint, the tiny particles filling the air can be a hassle for getting images properly focused and properly exposed (as you can see in several of these pictures) -- but the sawdust lends such a quality of authenticity to the photographs. And to me, any such picture seems immediately nostalgic. Indeed, days such as these are significant days in the history of our church!

The above image is more or less the "standard" shot of the ministry space, and I've basically tried to take such a picture every time that we get a little bit further on the project. You can compare the image above to the picture taken on the 23rd of October and the picture taken around the middle of October. Slowly but surely, we're getting there...

While we were working yesterday, the contractors were also working to tear out the existing kitchen (with hopes of reinstallation later). It turns out, due to fire regulations, that we have to install some extra walls to seal off the kitchen and create a more divided space between the "Lounge" area and the "Studio" area. We were a bit bummed to lose the openness of the Kitchen, Lounge, and Studio being all together -- but there are some practical advantages to the new arrangement, and we kind of just had to roll with the punches. So it goes...

My personal project for yesterday was ripping out the mirrors in the Lounge. I've been looking forward to tackling this project for quite some time. There had been some squabbles with the contractor and the owner about whose responsibility it was to remove the mirrors (which we never wanted) -- but since there had never been an explicit arrangement ahead of time, and since the contractor was saying that it would be an additional €2000 to take out the mirrors, we decided that we'd do it ourselves. I decided, in fact, that I'd do it myself.

And after two hours of hard work, the mirrors were out -- and I was feeling a whole lot better about where things were going with the Herengracht 88 facilities.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

This is ministry?

Why did I go into ministry? Why was it that I decided to make a career of working for the church? Hmmm...

Was it so I could be involved in high-stakes business negotiations? Was it so I could spend my time talking with lawyers and mitigating areas of legal exposure for the church? Was it so I could familiarize myself with the real estate market in Amsterdam? Was it so I could write employment policies and training manuals? Was it so I could keep track of time cards and vacation request forms for a moderately-sized staff team? Was it so I could answer e-mails and voice-mails and post-mails? Was it so I could spend my days in administrative oblivion?

Or was it to make an eternal difference in people's lives? Was it to serve God and others? Was it to be a part of fulfilling the Great Commission: making disciples, baptizing believers, teaching the ways of God, changing the world one life at a time?

Hmmm... Well, I thought my reasons for getting into full-time ministry were more of the latter and less of the former... But during this week -- and this season of life and ministry in general -- it would be hard to prove it empirically. My time and my priorities feel like they've recently been consumed by lawyers, e-mails, contractors, phone calls, paperwork, and administrative what-not... These days my job can be a thankless job, an invisible job, an insignificant job. Frustrating, to tell you the truth.

Yet, when it really comes down to it, I feel that I am where God wants to use me, for the time being. I've been reminded of some of the last words of Jesus, spoken to his disciple Peter and recorded in John 21:15-25 -- who didn't want to fill the role that had been assigned to him, who wanted someone else's job instead, or who wanted someone else to carry out his assignment instead of him... I believe Jesus understood the frustration and entrapment that Peter was feeling in this conversation. Yet Jesus said simply and directly: "If I want (such-and-such a purpose for such-and-such a person), what is that to you? You must follow me." And that call to follow included a command to take care of God's sheep -- which I feel is a call that God has placed on my own life as well... Even if that means managing a staff team, or negotiating business transactions for the ministry, or mitigating areas of legal exposure for the church. These things may not be the reasons for which I went into ministry, but perhaps they are the very reasons for which God wants me to be in ministry this week.

And who am I to question that?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sinterklaas (for the English speakers)

Congratulations, my Dutch friends [note: "Congratulations" is the standard birthday greeting in the Netherlands, offered both to the "Birthday Boy/Girl" and -- oddly enough -- to the other members of the immediate family]! Sinterklaas -- your good saint, your dear saint -- is celebrating his birthday today. Yesterday, Elliot celebrated the occasion with his school (see the picture from the last post) -- but today is the real day!

We really have no comparison in American culture -- kind of perhaps, a little bit, with Santa Claus and Christmas... but not nearly so exciting, so hysterical, so real! It's obvious that the children (and also the parents, the teachers, and the people playing the roles of the Zwarte Pieten and Sinterklaas himself) enjoy the day of Sinterklaas such as none other in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas is not merely some strange disconnected symbol in this culture. Sinterklaas is a friend -- no, actually, a family member!

Therefore, I offer my congratulations to all of you for the birthday of your beloved Sinterklaas. Have fun, and have a great day...


Gefeliciteerd, mijn Nederlandse vrienden. Sinterklaas -- jullie goede sint, jullie lieve sint -- is jarig! Gisteren vierde Elliot met zijn school de verjaardag van de favoriete sint van Nederland (zie foto boven) -- maar vandaag is de echte dag!

We hebben geen echte vergelijking in Amerikaanse cultuur -- wel een beetje met Kerstman (Santa Claus) en de Kerst... maar niet zo spannend, zo hysterisch, zo echt. Het is zo duidelijk dat de kinderen (en ook de ouders, de leerkrachten, en de Pieten en Sintje zelf) Sinterklaas genieten zoals geen andere dag in Nederland. Sinterklaas is geen vreemde figuur van het cultuur. Sinterklaas is een vriend -- nee, eigenlijk, een familielid.

Dus, ik feliciteer jullie met de verjaardag van Sinterklaas. Veel plezier en fijne dag...

Friday, December 01, 2006

You'd Never Know

The first of December is a meaningful day for our daughter. It was this day, exactly one year ago, when Olivia underwent surgery to remove her hemangioma (a benign tumor, about the size of a golf ball, which had been bulging from the right side of her forehead).

Though she has -- and will always have -- a small, flat, colorless scar right along her hairline, we've never regretted the (elective) surgery from a year ago. It gave our little girl's personality a chance to emerge from the shadow of her rather prominent medical anomaly. It permitted other people to fully see the Olivia that we knew so well. It allowed our lives to become more ordinary...

Or at least as ordinary as possible with an extraordinary girl like Olivia.