Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Mary DeYoung, a faithful follower of this blog, sent us a Christmas letter and wrote on the bottom of it, “Hope you are having fun at home, if Michigan is still home!” Mary (and anyone else who might wonder), this is surely my home. I love and appreciate Europe, but this is home. It’s home because when we drove up last Wednesday night, there were Christmas lights framing the doorway, and other lights in the windows and a beautifully decorated tree in the front room. Way to go, Jesse and Nanea! It’s home because we went down to Kalamazoo on Christmas Day for a wonderful dinner and that evening I had the longest serious talk with my dad that I can remember. It’s home because we’re heading back there this weekend to be among the throng of 29 family members who will overeat and give too many gifts to each other and, if past years are a guarantee of this year, laugh and laugh together. It’s home because the food tastes “right” and Meijers stocks more eggs in the dairy case of one store than you can find in the whole Benelux region (don’t let the “ij” in the middle fool you, there is nothing Dutch about that store). It’s home because I can turn right on a red light and don’t have to look for bicyclists in traffic circles (there are no traffic circles or bicyclists) and because our house feels like a mansion and our refrigerator is cavernous and our appliances have instructions in English and tonight we are going to see a movie and we have a choice of six or seven different times that one movie starts at various theaters around Grand Rapids. It’s home because I bought a pair of Levis for $18 and Gretchen got some leather boots for $45 (Thanks JC Penney) and I got over a pound of flank steak for my famous Japanese stir fry tonight for under $10. (Teriyaki marinade, onion, mushrooms, leek, sugar peas, zucchini, carrots and of course pineapple on a bed of brown rice. Thanks Japan for teriyaki. Thanks Hawaii for pineapple.) And Amanda bought a new sweatshirt yesterday for $8 (Thanks Target). You see, it is home because as much as I lament consumerism, I enjoy buying “good goods” for ridiculous prices.

Having said all that…there aren’t places to walk here. Today I went for a walk outside and barely avoided horrific falls twice. The Dutch have many, many walking trails and bike paths, and they keep them clear during the winter - it is as important to have clear walking and bike paths as streets. I found myself walking today like a fox on ice. I’ve broken down and tried mall walking this week. Come on. What are you breathing in at the mall? Not only some sort of manufactured air, but the posters at Victoria’s Secret, telling you sex is the meaning of life, the excess of the food court, telling you eating is the meaning of life, and Sears, telling you blandness is the meaning of life. Sorry Sears, but it’s true. As for Victoria’s Secret, my mind keeps going to Allen Levi’s song about a mall in Alabama where they put Santa next to Victoria’s Secret – both dressed in red and white, making promises neither can deliver. Thanks Allen.

As for the dairy section of Meijers – the Dutch don’t refrigerate eggs, milk or cheese, and their citizens seem to live healthy lives. How much energy would be saved if we stopped doing that?

And finally, this tidbit for those of you with eyes to see – I was delighted yesterday that my son Jesse listed his Facebook status as “out of alignment.” Ik ook, mijn zon, ik ook.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Baby It's Cold Outside

Holy cow, winter has come to the Netherlands. I am so happy it isn’t raining anymore! It snowed a couple of nights this week and there is a solid inch of snow on the ground, enough to bring every Dutch kid outside and into it. Some have made little snowmen, reminiscent of the snowmen Calvin used to make in Calvin and Hobbes. I don’t know why the snowmen are small, maybe because there isn’t much snow to work with, or maybe just because economies of scale are so important here.

It’s cold – eight below according to the television, but I have no idea what that means in terms I am used to without looking it up. I do okay in my head on the positive side of zero with the Celsius/Fahrenheit thing, but am thrown off when it goes below zero. Whatever it is, it’s cold, and the amount of moisture in the air makes it feel colder. One reason it’s cold is the sky’s been more or less clear. The sun is welcome! I prefer this to the endless gray gloom we had.

And the canals are frozen, but not solid enough to bring the public out en masse to skate on them. That is a rare event, although it happened last winter. I see kids playing on the canals, and some forlorn ducks trying to figure out what to do.

Numerous kids are out on wooden sleds – the sleds look like throwback models and are really cool. Yesterday I drove past a pre-school at noon and dozens of parents had come to pick their kids up with sleds. You may ask yourself what the point of a sled is in the world’s flattest country. The answer is that kids sled down the sides of the dikes. Below every dike is a canal, so you need to be careful, and today I saw some kids lined up on a dike sledding down and a dad was down below, standing guard in front of the canal. That was a beautiful picture of parenting to me. It also reminded me of the book “The Catcher in the Rye” and how Holden Caulfield misunderstands an old Robert Burns poem and want to be the catcher in the rye. I think I read that book in 1976, so I might be a little shaky on the details, but that’s what popped into my head.

Next week we leave the Dutch winter on Wednesday and head into Michigan winter for two weeks. Amanda will fly from Stuttgart and join us in Amsterdam for the flight across the ocean. I’m looking forward to great times with family and friends over the holidays. We celebrate decidedly fewer holidays in the US than will be celebrated in Europe – Americans skip right over Second Christmas (aka Boxing Day in the UK) and Epiphany (aka Three Kings Day in Spain - word is you really should see Three Kings Day in Spain). But we’ll do our best with what we have. Merry Christmas. Gelukkig Kerstfeest. Joyeux Noel. Feliz Navidad. God Jul.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

December Dutch Day

I like to write. That’s a reason I keep a blog. As much as I like it, I am aware that I never had a lot of formal training how to write. I took some Journalism classes in college, but don’t really remember them focusing on the craft of writing much. And it’s been a long time since I took those classes.

I never studied poetry. I don’t know the first thing about it – what any of the rules are. Not being bound by the rules, I am free to do whatever I want, and about two and a half years ago I started writing poems. I had never written a poem except for a school project before that. The process is strange, because I never try to write them. They just pop into my head, almost always a result of either something I see or my mind tossing a distant memory around. I think if I sat down and said, “Now I am going to write a poem,” the page would either be blank an hour later or I would write something so repulsive I would discard it in the first 24 hours.

What I know about poetry is mostly experiential. I have discovered the challenge of poetry is to use an economy of words. A part of the challenge of economy is to quickly convey genuine emotions. A greater challenge is to hook the reader. I have to admit I find most poetry boring and not very easily accessible. But I have a short list of poets I love.

Having made those confessions, I thought I’d share a poem that popped into my head today. I don’t know if it is any good. A really good poem, in my humble estimation, should work on multiple levels. It should be about something on the surface, and it should be about something deeper, some sort of truth that it evokes images of. That’s what Gerard Manley Hopkins does in a poem like “The Windhover,” which is about a bird diving to earth, but at the same time is about the incarnation of Jesus. So, let me set this poem up by saying as an amateur I tried to make it about two things at once. It’s up to you to guess. What do you think I was trying to write about? Your responses will help me know to what degree I have succeeded. And, here’s another thing you could respond to – do you read poetry? Do you have any favorite poets? Why are they your favorites?

Here’s hoping I hear from you.

December Dutch Day

It is beautiful.
The sun
That most elusive of objects
Can actually be seen
And if you were feeling generous
The sky
Might even be called blue
The air
So thick and wet these past weeks
Is crisp and clean.

My dog and I stand on a dike
Above polders
That are filled with sheep
Who have blue spots spray-painted above their tails
I assume that is the farmer’s work.

There are canals on both sides of us
And I see
Three white swans
A heron
And some ducks
A solitary horse and rider that
Trots along the dike to our right.
Between us stands a Nazi bunker

Which I suppose is there to
Keep me from getting carried away
To say there is a yin for every yang
A down for every up
A night for every day.
And as if on cue
The wind gusts
The clouds roll
The sun disappears
And all is cold and gloom.

But my dog
On a mission from God
Lifts his leg in the direction of the bunker
Reminding me
That the bad guys lost
The Nazis didn’t keep their power.

A farmer comes out of the bunker
Having beaten that sword into a plowshare long ago
And puts out feed for the sheep.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Miracle Man

I spent the last couple of days walking around Paris with David Usrey. A few months ago I doubted I would ever do such a thing again.

David Usrey is a miracle man.

Last winter David, the area director of our ministry in Paris, began having a constant headache. His personality also began to change, he lost interest in many things and felt very tired much of the time. His nose ran constantly. His wife Kathy began to wonder if he was cracking under the stress of his international job. But then, in mid-February, he became incoherent and was taken to a hospital. A CAT scan and MRI showed a mass in his brain and the doctors said they suspected the worse, that it looked cancerous.

“We were told he had a tumor the size of an apricot pit and had to have surgery,” his wife Kathy said. “We felt much more comfortable having the surgery in the United States.”

Through an amazing sequence of events, David was hospitalized in Paris on a Monday, diagnosed on Tuesday, flown to the US with a doctor that Friday, and had brain surgery the following Monday in Atlanta. It is a miracle that he was cleared to fly. He could not talk, could not walk, and was more or less semi-conscious. Yet he was approved to fly overseas on a ten-hour flight.

In Atlanta, the surgeons discovered the tumor was not the size of an apricot pit, but more like the size of a peach, or of a grown man’s fist. They confirmed that it was indeed cancerous, GBM 4 – Glioblastoma Multiforme Stage 4 - the “pit bull” of brain cancers and a virtual death sentence. Kathy was told to prepare for the worse – that her husband would be dead within a few months and that until then, she should expect he would come out of extensive brain surgery changed. Chances were he would not be fully functional, he probably would lose the use of one of his legs and his cognitive processes would be severely limited.

But the surgeon who removed the tumor came out beaming. It is another miracle that the surgery itself didn’t kill David. His tumor was so big it had grown across both sides of his brain and if the vein that runs in the middle of the brain was nicked during the operation it would likely have been fatal. The actual surgery lasted four and a half hours and it went better than anyone had a right to expect. The surgeon was very pleased that as much of the tumor as possible had been safely removed.

Within a couple days of the surgery, David was walking and talking and his cognitive abilities were unchanged. He then needed follow-up treatment of radiation and chemotherapy. Perhaps the most prestigious brain cancer surgeon in the US operates an experimental treatment program at the Duke University Medical Center. Seventy-five patients had been allowed in the program, but – in an event of miraculous timing - last winter an additional fifty patients were admitted. David was number 123 of 125 allowed in.

He had several months of radiation. He knew, early on, that it was working. “I could hear it sizzling, burning the cancer out of my brain,” he said. “They say you can’t hear this, but I could.”

He also reached a point of spiritual peace, a point he describes as fully accepting either life or death. “I knew I was okay and felt God’s presence very closely. I felt I wasn’t alone. And even though I was okay with death or life, I felt pretty certain that I was going to live.”

In addition to radiation, David swallowed hundreds of chemotherapy pills and had multiple IV’s as well. These drugs cost thousands of dollars each, and David receives them all for free from the pharmaceutical companies because he is part of the experimental Duke program.

A few weeks ago a PET scan showed the unbelievable – that David is completely cancer free (something he was already intuitively sure of). His doctors are stunned – with GBM 4 you hope to slow down the inevitable. You don’t expect people to become cancer free. David and Kathy returned back to their ministry and home in Paris from Atlanta at the end of September. He goes back to the US every few weeks for chemotherapy treatments. His stamina is amazing – he is two years younger than me and I wilt under transatlantic travel. I can’t imagine adding chemotherapy into the mix.

He is cancer free – and he is also a new man. He is a better man. He says he has “fewer filters,” which causes him to be more direct and honest with people. I don’t think that is a bad thing. He speaks more slowly and carefully, and that also is not a bad thing. My observation is that he is gentler, more tender-hearted, more compassionate and warmer. And he already was gentle, tender-hearted, compassionate and warm. He’s grown spiritually – and the more I think about it, the more I think for any of us, but certainly for David, growing spiritually means we have less anxiety and are more at peace with the world and with God. It means we trust. It means we don’t worry. I felt that peace with David the last few days.

When someone is healed – when someone who was “supposed to die” doesn’t – it raises all sorts of theological questions. Why was he spared when others – especially innocent children – aren’t? Were the prayers of David’s family and friends somehow better, more acceptable, holier or more compelling than the prayers of someone else’s family and friends? My old professor James Cook wrote some wise words about this dilemma a few years ago while watching his son Paul wage a losing battle with cancer: “Jesus’ miracles had more to do with the kingdom than with healing. The health they brought to the sufferer and the joy they brought to the sufferer’s family were gracious, personal, but secondary, gifts. Their primary and universal import was as signs of the kingdom, pointers to the promised reign when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes…the root of the miracle lay not in the quality of our faith and life but in the mysterious reality of God’s grace.” In other words, someone like David is meant to remind us that in God’s kingdom, life is a stronger force than death. The reality of life is that all will die – even David, sometime, perhaps in a few years, perhaps in many years. But for now we are supposed to remember that even then death is not the final word. Because of that, we all should aspire to live with the peace and trust David lives with now. I know I aspire to that.

Monday we were at La Defense, the ultra-modern square arch on the west side of Paris. I touched his arm and said, “David, I am really glad to able to be here with you today.”

He smiled and said, “I am really glad to be here today, too.”

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sint and Piet

Okay, friends and faithful readers, here is my attempt to explain what is happening this time of year in the Netherlands, as it seems fairly different compared to the rest of the world. Tomorrow we are hosting a Sinterklaas party at our home. In French, my understanding is that Sinterklass is translated Saint Nicholas, and in France and Belgium and parts of Germany, he doesn’t come tomorrow but the next day, December 6. The rest of the world more or less knows this character as Santa Claus, and I think it is easy to see the linguistic relationship between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus. But let me try to explain what happens in the Netherlands. It is a unique part of Dutch culture. I'm sure I will get a few details wrong, and all my Dutch readers can correct me.

The real St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, lived in Turkey. For some reason over the years, the Dutch Sinterklaas moved to Spain. For three weeks every year he comes to the Netherlands, for the rest of the year I imagine he enjoys sangria, tapas and Spanish beaches. He arrives in mid-November by steamship and is accompanied by his helper Zwarte Piet. Somehow, Piet has evolved into more than one person, so there are all sorts of Piets, and they are everywhere. You can see a band of Zwarte Piets in the picture above, taken three weeks ago on the day Sinterklaas’s ship came to Dordrecht. “Zwart” is the Dutch word for “black,” and Piet is black because he is a Moor and because he is a chimney sweep. A couple of days ago there was a Piet in the grocery store, wearing black face, dressed like a fop, making balloon animals for kids. It is not unusual to see children wearing Piet hats with their faces painted black. There is short TV show that Gretchen watches every day where various Piets are trying to stave off a villain who is trying to stop Sinterklaas from giving gifts to children. This year the bad guy is trying to deliver Brussel sprouts dipped in chocolate to all the kids and all the various Piets (like Music Piet who wears Elvis’s hair, Hocus Pocus Piet who does magic, Chef Piet, etc) are running around in with bright red lips and black faces trying to save the day.

As an American, I have to ask the simple question, “What the _____?” He looks like a cast-off from a minstrel show, like Al Jolsen with a funny hat. I simply cannot imagine the outrage and outcry in America if Santa didn’t have Buddy the Elf but instead had a little black helper that was portrayed by white people in black make up. The story is that a few years ago the Netherlands tried to create a rainbow coalition of Piets – purple Piet, red Piet, green Piet, etc, but it didn’t take. He’s back to being black. So, in the country known as perhaps the most liberal country in the world, a national symbol is a guy in black face. One reason, I suppose, that this is accepted is that there is no history of slavery here. (Although the “Golden Age” of the Netherlands was financed in large part by their involvement in the slave trade.)

Piet seems a bit on the mischievous side, but he’s evolved to become nicer over the years. He used to carry both a bag and a stick, and the word on the street was that if you had been “bad” the year before he’d club you with the stick and put you in the bag and take you to Spain. Why anyone would protest getting out of the endless cold drizzle here for sunny Spain is beyond me, but eventually a cadre of childrearing experts convinced the local population that it wasn’t healthy for children to have the threat of kidnapping hanging over their heads.

Piet does all the heavy lifting for Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas rides a white horse (but did I hear he rides a donkey in Belgium?) and I’m not 100% sure if both Sint and Piet hop up on the rooftops or just Piet, but it is Piet who goes down chimneys and puts presents in shoes. After Sint and Piet show up in mid-November, children put out their shoes every night or three times a week or weekly depending on the inclination of the parents, and Piet puts a present in the shoe overnight. Mandarin oranges, pepernotje cookies, and chocolate letters are all staple gifts in the days leading up to the big day, which is tomorrow. Most Dutch families do a gift exchange tomorrow night.

As a kid I was baffled by the logistics of Santa Claus – how he could get from the North Pole and around the world to all the places he needed to get to in one 24-hour period. It’s more manageable for Sinterklaas, he only needs to handle one relatively small country. In traditional Dutch families, gifts are given in the period leading up to and including tomorrow. Traditional Dutch families don’t exchange presents on Christmas Day. That is a holiday here, but the orgy of stockings and presents that are normal in America doesn’t happen here on that day. And the gift giving tomorrow pales in comparison to what happens on Christmas Day in the US. Dutch parents don’t feel the compulsion to give as much stuff as we do.

For a traditional adult Sinterklaas party, such as we are having tomorrow, it is customary to write a poem for the person you are giving a gift to. Usually, the poem makes fun of a bad habit of the gift’s recipient. The definition of poetry in this case is that it has to rhyme, which is something I have never been good at. But I have written a horrible poem, and have my gifts all set. And the menu is simple – hot chocolate with whipped cream and kruidnotje cookies. Wish you were here to see it all for yourself.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Being Cosmopolitan

Last time I wrote sort of a tongue-in-cheek account of frustration and woe about life here. But this time I am writing to make you envious. We traveled to Germany this weekend to visit our daughter Amanda and also spend some time with friends there. It was wonderful. For almost a decade I served on the Young Life – German Partnership committee. Sometime in the mid-1970’s Young Life established a partnership with the state church in Wurttemberg in and around Stuttgart in Southern Germany. The relationships formed from doing this work have enriched my life deeply.

So we stayed this weekend in Ludwigsburg, Germany, with Kerstin, who heads the partnership committee on the German side, and her husband Sven. They are really smart and really nice, and I like people like that. On Friday night we went to a restaurant that specializes in serving game and I had wild boar. It was spectacular – served with fresh cranberries in a special sauce with spetzel. Man, that was good. On the way to the restaurant they asked how Gretchen and I were adjusting to our new lives and I mentioned that I had been struggling between the two cultures and have been asking myself, “who or what am I when I know I am not Dutch but then have questions when I go back into American culture?” Sven said, “Then you are cosmopolitan, but more than that you are human, which is the best any of us can hope to be.” There is real wisdom in that statement.

Sven is a collector, and I appreciate that personality. I used to collect stamps as a boy and baseball cards as a boy and an adult, and now I guess I collect friends in different countries. Sven collects things related to fantasy literature, and Kerstin and Sven together collect Scotch whiskey. I asked them what turned out to be one of the smartest questions I’ve ever asked anyone on Friday night. I said, “I don’t really know anything about Scotch. Will you teach me?” And they did. We had a tasting, and also an education. They have traveled in Scotland many times and visited several distilleries and they brought out lots of different types and we learned about the taste differences from the types of barrels Scotch is aged in. I found out I was an oak man, although it seems like the most distinguished palates go for the “peaty” whiskeys. We learned about using your hand to warm the Scotch to bring out its full flavor, and although we sampled many different types it was just in small sips and we kept our wits about us. (If we had gotten hammered, I just wouldn’t write about it.) I will say, though, that I didn’t have any trouble falling asleep Friday night.

On Saturday they took us to the baroque Christmas market in Ludwigsburg. The market is baroque because Ludwigsburg is baroque – the castle in Ludwigsburg was inspired by Versailles and is a European treasure. The market was huge and featured a brass band, people dressed in period costumes, and most anything you could imagine a Christmas market might have for sale. We bought some vanilla honey, which must have been made by angelic bees because it is heavenly, and a cherry-balsam mustard that you simply would need to taste to understand how good it is. We were also introduced to the wonders of Gluhwein (I am missing an umlaut on the “u”), which is a warm, spiced fruity wine, and I learned the secret of being able to stay outside for hours on end in the cold. We brought some of that home to fortify me the next time I walk Maury in a cold Dutch drizzle. I posted a picture above of me with Sven and Kerstin having a cup of Gluhwein at the Barock Weihnnachtsmarkt in Ludwigsburg. Guten Tag! Amanda joined us Saturday afternoon and we had a very nice time together. One interesting thing was Sven noted how Amanda’s German got worse as she spent time speaking English with us. But Gretchen and I are amazed at our tri-lingual daughter and are very proud of her.

We said goodbye to Kerstin and Sven Sunday and headed over to Esslingen, where Amanda lives, on the other side of Stuttgart. We had dinner Sunday with Dieter, a pastor who is also on the partnership committee, and his American wife Nancy, who is also a pastor, and their two children Anna and Hannes. They are a great family. After dinner we went for a long walk and I asked Dieter about two dozen theological questions I have been thinking about. Dieter told me a great quote from Vaclav Havel, the playwright who was once president of the Czech Republic. He said that hope isn’t the belief that everything is going to work out okay someday, it is the belief that what you are doing now is making a difference. That is quite profound and worth thinking about. He also gave me an unexpected answer to one of my questions. I asked him what sin is and he said, “Sin is failing to trust in life.” I said I didn’t know what that meant and he went on to talk about how in his resurrection Jesus has shown that life is stronger than death. Sin is to live as if you don’t believe that, that you don’t believe life has meaning, to live in a way that doesn’t respect or value others, our planet, our lives, our world, to take this gift of life and not do with it what we could or can do with it. There is much to think about there, also.

German pastors are so much better educated than their American counterparts. I know there must be exceptions, but every German pastor I know has depths of knowledge, not just about theology and people, but also about things like literature, history, language, music, wine, Scotch, and art. I am always enriched after spending time with any of them.

Gretchen and I went home via Luxembourg, just because. Well, not exactly just because. It is almost a seven hour drive home from where we were, and I didn’t want to feel pressured to cut our time short on Sunday. So I looked for a place to stop and break up the drive, and I picked Luxembourg because Amanda and I are having a contest of who has been in the most countries and she was ahead by one…was ahead because I tied her on Sunday night. I was thinking of her when I registered at the hotel. The desk clerk was speaking German when I got there, then spoke French to the person in line in front of me, and then spoke English with me. It is funny because Gretchen and I consider Amanda’s speaking of French, German and English to be such an accomplishment for an American, but I realize this accomplishment qualifies her to work the desk of a hotel in Luxembourg.

All of which made me think of seeing Penelope Cruz on David Letterman on TV a little while ago and she told him she makes films in English, Spanish, Italian and French. And he just looked at her for a second and then said something like, “We are so stupid.” I don’t think we are stupid, but we sure don’t have to know the same things people in other parts of the world need to know.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ah, the Romance of Europe!

Every once in a while I think I have figured out how to function day to day here. And then a day like today happens, and Dutch reality slaps me in the face and says, “Snap out of it.”

Here’s what happened. A while ago some of the folks who support us decided to give us a wonderful gift. They decided to pay for an adult tricycle for Gretchen. She needs the stability of a tricycle, but they are fairly expensive so we’d put off buying one when we first arrived. After their generous offer we went ahead and bought one. These folks are experienced in international business, and sent us a check in Euros to pay for it. Today I tried to do the simple task of depositing the check.

I knew that checks are unusual in the Dutch banking system because everything is done electronically. So I decided not to head to the closest bank branch, which is located in a convenience store (and is the only bank I have ever been to where you can also buy porn). Instead I headed to the “centrum,” where the main branch of my bank is. I made a near fatal mistake (the first of many) when I decided to head downtown without thinking of how I was going to pay for parking. They don’t give parking spots away in any city on this continent. It was raining, of course, and I navigated my way to the closest parking garage to the bank. I grabbed the umbrella we keep in the car and because the wind was blowing the rain sideways had to really bring the umbrella down in front of me. I soldiered on in the general direction of the bank, not really being able to see beyond my feet, and after a while found that I had managed to walk myself into a dead end. When I looked up I had no recognition whatsoever of where I was. Oops. So I retraced by steps, went down another street, found myself in another parking garage, walked on and before too long had oriented myself and found my way to the bank.

When you enter the bank you have to take a number, but before you take a number you have to decide if you want to speak to a representative or go to a teller. I have never had to go to a teller before, but today I thought that was what I needed to do and chose “kas” instead of “vragen” at the number machine. Wrong choice. I approached the teller with confidence and explained I wanted to deposit a check. “No,” she said, “We do not accept checks. You will have to wait and speak to my colleague and he can instruct you.” So I waited and after no more than fifteen minutes her colleague told me I have to mail the check to their offices in Amsterdam and made a copy of the instructions of all the things I have to write on the back of the check (the usual things – “I want to deposit this in the bank” in Dutch, my name, my address, my bank account number and “I will not bring another check to the bank again” in Dutch 100 times.) He even gave me an envelope to mail the check in and thought he should make a copy of the check for me, so I left with a bunch of papers in my hands.

Then I thought about paying for parking and decided to use the ATM machine inside the bank to get some money. Bad idea. I have no idea what the ATM machine in the bank is for, but as near as I could tell, it was not for withdrawing cash. I think I possibly could have made arrangements to finance a new boat, but I couldn’t get money from the thing.

So I headed out, clutching my little collection of papers, holding the umbrella close, and navigating my way to the parking garage. Unfortunately, the wind was now behind me and soon the umbrella was inside out. I managed to wrestle successfully with that while holding on to my papers and entered the parking garage, thinking I could use a bank card to pay. No deal. Of the many ways to pay, bank card wasn’t one of them. I set out again and went to another bank downtown, where I used their ATM and got a ten Euro note, which I was able to put into the payment machine to pay the one Euro I owed. The machine spit out my change, all in coins, with such a violent force that I spent the next few minutes finding my coins on the ground.

Successfully having paid, I drove home, a wiser man. This only took an hour and the check is still in my possession. I was enjoying listening to Phoebe Snow sing “Poetry Man” on the way home when the car CD player malfunctioned (as it likes to from time to time) and suddenly I was listening to a guy trying to sell me something in Dutch. But just as I thought this stinks, I turned into our driveway and it switched back to Phoebe and she sang, “You’re the Poetry Man, you make things all right, yeah, yeah,” and I thought “You got it, Phoebe, I am the Poetry Man and I am going to make everything all right.” Yeah, Yeah.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Belgium - There is More Going on Here Than Good Waffles

I’m in Charleroi, Belgium tonight staying with the Murru family. I love this family. Sergio was raised in Belgium but his family is from Sardenia, his wife Roselie has Belgian and American citizenship and is a third generation missionary, and they have three great kids who are all interesting to talk to. This has become one of my favorite places to visit.

Earlier tonight Gretchen and I attended a couple of events on the north side of Brussels. We went to a Belgian Young Life club (called Jeunesse et Vie in French) and I was thinking about how in the US it would be cool if at a Young Life club every person who entered the room kissed every other person in the room. No one is a stranger for long in this culture. Before the club we went to a guitar class that is fairly unique. We met a Belgian guy named Nat who is a minister and we had a chance to talk tonight. When he first started working in this area (and like a classic person from Brussels Nat speaks French, English and Dutch beautifully) he was very invested in a fairly well-known outreach program and tried it nine times without much response. He finally simply asked the question, “What can we offer instead of a pre-packaged program that meets the needs of this neighborhood?” So now they offer language classes and guitar classes and things like that. And he does a sort of revolutionary thing on Sunday mornings. He doesn’t have a traditional church. Instead, they serve some croissants and then someone does what is more or less a sermon and that is followed by what he called a “debate” although discussion might be a better English word. They have several people who come to the Sunday morning times that do not consider themselves Christians but enjoy talking about what they hear on Sundays. I found the whole concept refreshing and was sort of envious of it. I’d love to go to a “church” that non-Christian people wanted to come to and then felt comfortable enough to dig into the message and talk about what they really thought about what is being said.

Nat told me that when he teaches people about relating to folks that don’t share the same faith views, he teaches people to avoid three topics – politics, morals and apologetics. By apologetics I think he meant especially science and ideas about how science and the Bible fit together. Do you know that board game Taboo where you are have to give clues to figure out a word but get a list of words you cannot say? This sort of reminded me of that – how do you talk about Christianity if you don’t talk about these three topics – which more or less seem to consume much of the talk about Christianity in the US if not in the Western world as a whole. Nat said if you venture into these three topics here, people’s defenses go up and you are having an intellectual discussion about ideas but not a heart talk about real things. So I naturally asked what they do talk about with people. He gave a profound answer.

“We tell people we will pray for them when they are hurting or struggling. No one is ever offended by that. And we talk about the love of God.”

That’s it. Pretty simple. And pretty revolutionary.

Speaking of profound answers to questions I’ve asked recently, I also want to post this next exchange because I thought it was very rich and I don’t want to forget it.

One of our staff people in Portugal is a young woman named Ashley from North Carolina. She is a great dancer. I know to look at me you would assume that I am also a great dancer. Sadly that assumption would be false. So I asked Ashley last weekend what the secret to being a great dancer is. She said, “Well, outside of rhythm, the secret is freedom.” I think that answer has wisdom in it way beyond Ashley’s years.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Portuguese Blessings

Lisbon – Okay, I admit I think it is cool to post something from Lisbon. Actually, I am in Cascais, which is so wonderfully beautiful I don’t understand why it isn’t world famous. Lisbon is on a river that empties into the Atlantic Ocean and Cascais is the spot where that river meets the sea. There are hills and cliffs and beaches and I’ve tried to spend as much time as possible out of doors because the weather is warm, the sun has been shining and it feels so refreshing. Of course it is raining today, but that’s going to happen in November. Overall it’s been wonderfully good to be here.

I have become aware that sometimes I communicate in a sort of “out of body” type way, that I can’t quite believe little old Jeff Munroe from little old Grand Rapids, Michigan gets to be where I am having the experiences I have. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, here I go again. Last night I was having dinner with three British people who play in the “Lisbon Gulbenkian Orquestra.” One of them plays the French Horn, the other the viola and the third the violin. The French Horn player also is a gourmet cook and he just threw together something on the spot for dinner (which was terrific – turkey and pasta and salad and mango and pineapple) and then we went to downtown Lisbon where we met the French Horn player’s wife, who plays the flute in the orchestra, because she had a ticket for me for their concert last night. Oh, and I also know another French Horn player in the same orchestra, bringing the number of people I know in this orchestra to five, and making Lisbon, Portugal the place in the world where I know the most members of an orchestra.

I am here under the guise of working, and at times the past few days I have worked quite a bit, but the concert last night and the conversation at dinner were pure gifts to me. My spirit was fed. There is something about having a serious talk with folks who have English accents that makes me feel special. I don’t quite know how to explain that.

I also spoke this weekend at a camp to a group of high school kids. A few of the kids are Portuguese and have lived here all their lives. Others are part of the International community and attend one of the International Schools here. I met an American kid who has never lived in the United States, and I asked the other kids to tell me where else they have lived. This is the list of additional countries I collected: Angola, Zimbabwe, South Africa, France, Brazil, South Korea, Italy, Argentina, Australia and England. There were two kids who were born in Angola who had been sent out of their country because it was engulfed in a civil war. (Did you know, that like in Brazil, Portuguese is the language of Angola?) One of the kids from Angola had also lived in Miami, Florida for a while. He made me laugh because when I told him I was from Michigan he said that he was aware there was an Angola near Michigan and he wondered if he should live there. I assured him I didn’t think they would quite know what to make of him if he showed up saying "I'm home," in Angola, Indiana. He was a really nice kid whose name I can pronounce but can’t spell – if I had to take a guess I’d say it was something like Yvandro. Yesterday we were standing outside of a Starbucks and he asked me if I was going inside to get a coffee. I told him I wasn’t because I don’t like coffee, and he looked surprised and said, “But you are an American, every American I know likes coffee.” I said, “Well, maybe I’m not like every other American you know,” and he quickly became serious and said, “I already know that from listening to you speak to us.” Again, I don’t know if I should pinch myself or not, but to have a refugee kid from Angola say that to me made me very, very happy. It has been good for me to be here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

It's a Girl! No, it's a Washing Machine!

We learned over the weekend that our Dutch friend Donna is pregnant. She told us Friday night, and then when I saw her on Sunday morning I asked if she and her husband Rian had talked about names yet. Basically, she said, Rian is in huge denial, and that he won’t even talk about any of the preparations they need to make until he sees her stomach start growing. I totally understand that – it takes a while for first-time fathers-to-be to get used to the idea that one plus one equals three, and one of the gifts of pregnancy is that as that belly protrudes there is no denying that the baby is coming.

So I told Donna that I thought Jeff was a beautiful name for a baby, male or female, and she laughed, very similarly to the way Christie and Staffan in Sweden laughed at me when I suggested the same thing to them a few months ago. No one takes the idea of naming a baby after me seriously. I’m learning to live with that disappointment.

But having the conversation with Donna brought back memories of how our kids got their names. It was pretty dopey. I had done my family history and learned that we were a pioneer family in the state of Michigan. My ancestor Jesse Munroe was the first resident of Eagle, Michigan, in something like 1836. So I wanted the name Jesse for a boy and Gretchen agreed. I love the name Jesse – it’s both Biblical and has the whole "Jesse James outlaw" thing going for it. The question we struggled with was what to call a girl. Gretchen wanted the name Elisabeth spelled with an “s” instead of a “z.” My thought was that would mean the kid would go through life with both names misspelled, because our last name is misspelled constantly. (Damn you, President James Monroe!) Her next suggestion was Carolyn, after her college roommate (and a reader of this blog). I said no, that my parents were named Carol and Lynn and since they were divorced I didn’t want to be the one to reunite them. (Sorry Carolyn.) Then she suggested Marilyn, since that was our friend Duey’s wife’s name and it rhymed with Carolyn. There was something familiar about that. I don’t know, what do you folks think about naming your daughter Marilyn Munroe? So I finally came up with a list of names I could live with that were all variations on the same theme – I liked Allison (because of an Elvis Costello song, truth be told) and Emily and Amelia and Amanda. Gretchen agreed to Amanda.

The next issue was middle names. Since I had argued so hard on the first names, I backed off on the middle names. Jesse’s middle name is Scott, which is a significant family name for Gretchen. She had a brother who died several years ago named Scott, and it was also her mother’s maiden name. I liked the name because Munro is the name of a Scottish clan. We had no problem with Scott. But we totally caved in and let ourselves be bribed on our girl’s middle name. Gretchen’s mother said, “If you name her after me, I will buy you a new washing machine.” Well, Gretchen’s mother’s name is Susan and Amanda’s middle name is Susan. The washing machine lasted until Amanda was in high school, thank you very much.

My grandfather always used to plead with us never to name any of our children after him or my grandmother. I don’t know, I always wanted a couple of kids named Clarence and Cleva. I don’t think there was ever any danger of us naming humans after them, but they do sound like good pet names, don’t they? What I'd give for a gerbil named Clarence.

All of which makes me think of Eric and Katie Kuiper, who are expecting baby number three before too long. The first two are Simeon and Judah, which means they’ve got a 12 tribes of Israel thing going, and I wonder if Asher or Naphtali or Gad is on the way.

I am thinking there must be some other great stories out there about all the fun communication between couples that goes on when coming up with names for your children. I want to hear from you about it. I love those families that have four kids: John and Jeremiah and Josiah and Bob. How the heck did Bob happen? Let me know. It can’t be worse than taking a bribe or considering naming your kid after a sex symbol, can it?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Some Book and People Notes

I just took Maury out around the neighborhood in the gloaming – it was totally wet and dark-- and counted twenty seven people on bicycles that passed us on our walk. I was wearing a raincoat, an ear warmer, and gloves; they were all in jackets or sweatshirts and moving along at a normal pace. I don’t know how they do it. I am not Dutch.

There were two encounters I had yesterday that I want to write about. First, I met a fifteen-year old and a seventeen-year old from, of all places, Middleville, Michigan. Their dad was a missionary in Poland for three years and then decided he needed more education, and for the past year and a half they’ve lived in the Netherlands while their dad goes to school. As I was talking to them I said, “You know, you can’t go back to Middleville,” and they said, “Why not?” and I said, “Because your world is so much bigger now than the kids you left behind there. You know Polish and German and French and Dutch and your friends are worried about who they will see at the latest high school football game and going to the mall.” And their eyes lit up and they said, “We want to go to the mall,” and I told them I was at the Woodland Mall last Friday night and about the new gargantuan Barnes & Noble they’ve built there, and I could see their hearts melting with envy. What a funny world. The seventeen-year old is going to college next year, and when I asked her where she said, “Someplace on the East Beltline,” which means Kuyper, Cornerstone, Calvin or Davenport, and it just struck me as surreal to be talking about colleges in my hometown of Grand Rapids with a kid in the Netherlands.

Then I met a young woman from Alaska who has a French mother and American father who described herself as a third-culture kid and we talked about not fitting in the US and not being really European. She actually brought up how frustrating it is to go to Chili’s, which made me smile because of my recent blog post about that. And then I said, “Why can’t Americans learn how to bake bread?” and she waxed rhapsodic about the higher value Europeans put on food and social situations involving food. At one point she said to me, “How often do you go back to the US” and I said, “About every three or four months, I just got back on Sunday night,” and she said, “Oh, are you jet lagged?” and I said “Of course,” and then she said, “And food doesn’t taste that good to you,” and I admitted that was true and she said, “Well, I call that the price of living an interesting life,” and I loved that comment. She made me feel good about feeling lousy.

Meeting her made me think of what I am going to do next week. I get to go to Cascais, Portugal (where I am confident the sun will be shining), and I am speaking at a Young Life camp for “third-culture kids,” kids who go to International Schools whose parents are either in International business or the military and who are American but who have often lived everywhere in the world except the United States. These kids fascinate me and it is a challenge to speak to them. You just can’t toss anything by them, they are way too smart. So, as I am preparing to speak to this extremely sophisticated group of kids, I’ve been re-reading NT Wright’s masterpiece “Simply Christian.” If you are wondering if the Christian story makes any sense and what in the world it all might mean, you should read this book. NT Wright is the Anglican Bishop of Durham, and we made a pilgrimage to the great cathedral at Durham about four years ago. Durham is where the river Wear is, where Godric (another great book, this one by Frederick Buechner, you really need to read that one, too) lived, and we were amused by the advertisement outside the Cathedral cafeteria that included a review from the “Sunday Times” which said, “Everything you would expect in a Cathedral cafeteria.” Anyway, NT Wright’s book is without parallel.

And finally, another book plug on this dark and rainy night. I’ve been quoting Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith” in these pages lately because it is so good. She writes about discovering God in the everyday; that spirituality isn’t some quest to find something out there but waking up to what’s already here. Do yourself a favor and read that one, too. You won’t regret it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dutch Dullness Yields to Dale

Someone asked me when I was in Michigan what in the world loving your enemies means and how we are supposed to do that. I felt like I was at a loss because those words of Jesus come from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, and the greatest commentary on Matthew is by Dale Bruner, but my copy of that commentary was in the Netherlands, not in the US. So, I’ve been reading Bruner today. It’s either read Bruner or contemplate the endless shades of grey in the Dutch sky, so I settled on Bruner. What he says is so good I want to share it with the world, or at least the small fraction of the world that reads this blog.

Before I start with what he said, let me say a few words about Dale Bruner. He is about the sweetest, gentlest person I’ve ever met, a little elf of a man who in his retirement spends countless hours studying and reading. He once said to me with great enthusiasm, “Jeff, I get to sit in a carrel in the Fuller Seminary library and spend my days with the greatest literature the world has ever known. What could be better than that?” And I, introverted Jeff Munroe, said, “Um, maybe talking to people?” and he said, “Well, of course, but I talk to a lot of people through my books” and I am envious of that. He’s the kind of guy who once wrote to me, “Your letter was a Balm in Gilead” and I believed him. He can get away with sounding like the King James Version of the Bible because he is so sincere.

So, here are some highlights on loving your enemies.

This statement of Jesus’ is unlike anything anyone else has ever said. It is without parallel in ancient wisdom texts. Statements like this make Jesus utterly unique.

The command is communal, not just individual. To capture the essence of it, Bruner translates the text: You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you folks, You people love your enemies and you people pray on the behalf of the people who are persecuting you so that you may really be the children of your Father in the heavens, because he is shining his sun right down on evil people and on good people, and he is sending his rain down on righteous people and on unrighteous people. For you see, if you folks just love the people who are loving you, what kind of reward do you think you should get for that? Aren’t even the extortionist-tax collectors doing the same? And if you folks just give warm greetings to your spiritual brothers and sisters, what is so special about that? Aren’t even the pagans doing the same thing? So then, you folks are going to be a perfectly mature people, just as your heavenly Father is perfectly mature.

Because it is communal, Jesus is telling the church to be inclusive, not exclusive. We cannot want the destruction of whatever group we perceive as being the enemies of God. I can think of lots of groups the American church at least has perceived that way, and I will leave it to you to fill in your own thoughts. Jesus is re-interpreting all those destruction references in the Old Testament and telling us to read them differently. Bruner says, “Jesus is Lord even over Scripture…Christians can no longer read vengeance texts as binding…the disciple will never again be able to enter crusades of any kind…the problem with hatred is that it almost always sees others as the chief problem: a warped self-righteousness infects all crusades.”

What does it mean to love our enemies? How can we do this that sounds so extraordinarily difficult? Jesus starts with the little step of simply praying for them. We should do for them what they cannot and will not do for themselves. “Often, in hard fact, the only viable or even honest way we can love our enemies is to pray for them.”

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Bruner tells us, Jesus’ commands take us back to the splendor of the Beatitudes. What Beatitude does loving your enemy take us back to? Surely the seventh: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” If we didn’t get it, Jesus makes it clear when he gives us this motive for loving our enemies: “so that we may become children of our Father in the heavens.” Bruner writes, “This is the divine carrot, the great come-on of Jesus’ Command: intimacy with God.”

All that stuff about the rain and the sun being equally distributed to the good and bad alike? Jesus is telling us God loves his enemies, so we should too.

Bruner uses the phrase “perfectly mature” to capture the goal for us, instead of the word “perfect,” which almost all of our Bible translations use. I think that is an inspired choice. Perfect is too cold, too unattainable, too distant, too, well, too perfect a word to attain to. “Mature” is what it is all about. Grow up. Be who you were created to be. Be fully human.

He closes the section with this:

Love. Christian maturity is a whole-souled commitment, for Jesus’ sake, to protecting other people. Christian maturity is looking at everyone we meet and saying, at least to oneself, “I will never, God helping me, do anything to hurt you: either by angrily lashing out at you, lustfully sidling up to you, faithlessly slipping away from you, verbally oiling you up, protectively hitting you back, or even justifiably disliking you.

Thanks Dale, for shining a bright light into a very dull Dutch day.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The High Cost of Being Cheap

Rome - There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote I love that says, “Strange travel directions are dancing lessons from God.” I have some strange travel directions to get from my home in Grand Rapids to my home in Dordrecht. I saved over $1000 on travel expenses by flying through Chicago on this trip. The way over was simple, the way back complicated (via Rome on Alitalia) but through the magic of, yours truly is suffering to save money, which I call the high cost of being cheap. I figure it easier to have a strange itinerary than to find a new $1000 donor. My trip started at 9am in Grand Rapids on Saturday and right now it is 10am in Rome on Sunday, and if everything goes well from here I will walk in the door in Dordrecht around 6 tonight. With all the time changes factored in, that’s still about 26 hours to get home, and the worst part is that I missed the extra “fall back” hour of sleep you got last night – I was losing 6 hours while you gained one.

I decided on the drive to Chicago that I would choose joy instead of orneriness and grumpiness on this trip. I decided to have as much fun as possible and see how many people I could bless along the way. My first chance came on the South Side of Chicago when I stopped to fill up my rental car before turning it in. I had to go inside to get my receipt from a rotund African-Amercan woman with the face of an angel, who was sitting in a sort of cage behind large amounts of bullet proof glass. She said, “Here you go, baby,” as she handed me the receipt, and I took a step away and then stopped and said, “Thanks for calling me baby. That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me today.” She roared and roared and was beaming as I walked out.

I found it was cheaper to rent a car at Midway Airport than O’Hare Airport, and cheaper still to ride a shuttle between the two places than to rent a car at one and return it to the other. So, on the shuttle I tried and failed to initiate a conversation with the man sitting behind me in the turban with the enormous moustache. I was so hoping I could get to the point with him where I could say, “What’s the deal with the turban and soup strainer?” but it didn’t happen. A few years ago I hosted a group of Amish people who wanted to see TimberWolf Lake and about half way through the tour I felt free enough to ask them, “What’s the deal with the neck beards?” but this wasn’t the same. (By the way, despite repeated requests, the Amish would not give me a hat.) Anyway, the man in the turban spent most of the ride on his cell phone speaking what I assumed was Hindi. It seemed ironic to me that we dropped him off at the American Airlines terminal while I was taken to the International Terminal.

Standing in a non-moving security line at O’Hare (after checking in on Alitalia, which is conveniently located between Pakistani Air and Air India), I started to study the buttons on the backpack of the Japanese young woman in line in front of me. One of the buttons said “(Heart) my body,” and that made me interested in talking to her. That last line sounds lecherous, so let me explain. I know from a lifetime of experience that body-image is often the overwhelming issue for young women. Mary Pipher’s “Reviving Ophelia” lays out powerfully how so many seemingly self-confident pre-pubescent girls wilt under the pressures of adolescence. So, I liked the button and the sentiment it proclaimed. I broke the ice and found out she was from Tokyo, attending grad school in Public Health specializing in genetics at the University of Michigan, and was heading to Mexico City for fall break to visit some friends. She seemed like a great young person, and I thought of three things I could say that might bless her.

First, I boldly told her what I do for a living. I wanted her to experience an inquisitive, friendly Christian. My hunch was verified by her response when I told her I was a minister – it seemed like the farthest possibility from her mind.

Second, I made sure I told her how impressive she was. Her English was fantastic(I couldn’t hear an accent) and I can't imagine how smart she must be to get into a great school like U of M (tough for a Spartan to admit but true) and to be doing graduate work in English.

Third, I made sure I told her that she had great eyes. She wasn’t one of the magnificent beauties of the world, but her eyes were pretty. My theory is that the reason I knew she was Japanese before we started talking was her eyes, so I decided to compliment what made her distinctive. I tried the same approach with the Muslim woman’s head covering last week and it worked both times.

We talked about a lot of things while we stood in line, like Ann Arbor, where I lived a long time ago, and my own daughter’s grad school ambitions, and all the security rules that defy logic (for example, in the US it’s take your shoes off and leave your belt on, in Europe it’s take your belt off and leave your shoes on). By the time we got to the other side of the scanners and said goodbye she had a big smile on her face and I felt she headed toward Mexico City feeling just a bit more confident and sure of herself.

On the plane I read these lines from Barbara Brown Taylor: “What we have in common is not religion but humanity…encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get…The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery.”

That’s what I am trying to do, especially while I travel. I got a few laughs out of Alitalia, we were an hour and a half late leaving and no one seemed to care or be in a hurry, as a matter of fact the pilot saw a couple he knew in the waiting area and he spent 45 minutes talking to them while all the other crew members were entering the plane. Once we were in the air after about 20 minutes they showed the safety video. I wonder what all the people who don’t know how to fasten a seat belt did? Alitalia definitely had their own way of doing things. My seat mate was from Bulgaria, and he was suffering from a bit of Eastern European-itis, which is another way of saying he was very quiet and not interested in talking and an arm chair psychologist might even say projecting a bit of shame out there for the world to encounter. There was an American couple across the aisle and I talked to them for a bit, she fell into my lap early on the flight and sadly, that wasn’t a very pleasant experience for me. She also broke her arm rest and I fixed it, being the handyman I am. They were on their way to a cruise – the 30th cruise they had taken in their lifetime and they were one trip through the Suez Canal short of having circumnavigated the globe on cruise ships. She said, “We’ve seen the whole world, well, actually, we’ve seen the coasts of the whole world, we really don’t spend much time in the interior.” She seemed to enjoy telling her husband what to do and speaking rather brutally to him, and he seemed to enjoy taking it. I told them I enjoyed the interiors of countries and actually meeting the people who live in these countries, and I could tell that seemed like a wild and crazy idea.

Now I am in Rome and exhausted, but I always wanted to post something from Rome, so here goes.

Addendum – Now it is about 8pm and I have been home for 90 minutes – nothing much eventful happened the rest of the way. I slept a lot, first in the waiting area, then on the plane to Amsterdam (where I was sitting in the same row as a Dutch woman who was also traveling home via Rome for a cheap ticket) and finally on the train to Dordrecht. It was pouring rain in Dordrecht and I let it soak me through trying to find the bus home. The whole central station is under construction and in the dark I couldn’t see where the busses are now. Finally, I did see a taxi cab and asked God to forgive me for doing something nice for myself on this trip that seemed to have a monastic self-flagellation quality to it. I spent 10 euro more on the cab than the bus would have been, and got out of the rain and home quickly. As we were approaching home the cab driver said, “You have had a long journey but relief is in sight.” Amen. That man is a true prophet.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Three Blessings

Three things have moved me and blessed me in the past 24 hours.

First, I heard a testimony last night at the Urban Young Life Celebration in Grand Rapids that was as clear and as wonderfully presented as any I have ever heard. A nice-looking young African-American kid got up on the stage and held up two pieces of paper with three numbers printed on each piece. He said that this number was his identity for three years while he was in prison. When he got out of prison he started attending Young Life and went to summer camp, where he met Jesus Christ and turned his life around. Then, as he got more involved he went to another camp and wondered, “What could be better than what already happened at the first camp?” Well, at the second camp he found out he could do something, and he pulled out a beautifully painted self-portrait. “I learned I could paint.” One of the adults at camp saw his painting and has helped him get enrolled at Kendall College, a local art and design school. He set the self-portrait up on stage where we all could see it, took his prison number in his hands and tore it up, saying something like, “This is not my identity. My name is Bryan, I am a child of God, and I am a painter.”

My nephew Michael Jeffrey Munroe was sentenced to seven years in prison last week for his part in a botched robbery in California. He also loves to draw, and my eyes filled with tears as I prayed that my nephew would come out of prison like Bryan has.

Second, as the night was coming to a close, I took in the whole scene. There were maybe 300 people there and I was one of the twenty or so white people present. In the past I would feel awkward about that, last night I was feeling pretty cool to be one of the few white people with the sense to be a part of something so beautiful. As the night was ending there were 150 or so kids on the stage, and I again started to cry, as I considered how pure and good this ministry is. One of the African-American businessmen on the Young Life committee saw my tear-filled eyes and said something like, “I hope those are tears of joy, because you started this thing.” That about did me in. I didn’t start it, I was part of starting it. I hired the staff and helped find the funding for it. I did my best to support it when this ministry was part of my Young Life region. I cannot take all the credit, but I can take some.

I hope I have reached the point in life when I no longer go looking for compliments because I need them for self-validation. I hope I have reached the point where a compliment can just be a compliment, and I can let it come over me and come into me with all its weight and stick to me so I can feel some of its glory.

The third blessing came as I read these words from Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book “An Altar in the World.” She was writing about herself, but like all great writing, I met myself in her words. (Sorry, Barbara, if this quote is too long for copyright purposes. Remember we met last January and I got to say nice things in public about you and you liked me. Please don’t sue me.)

In my life, I have lost my way more times than I can count. I have set out to be married and ended up divorced. I have set out to be healthy and ended up sick. I have set out to live in New England and ended up in Georgia. When I was thirty, I set out to be a parish priest, planning to spend the rest of my life caring for souls in any congregation that would have me. Almost thirty years later, I teach school. The last time I tried to iron one of my old black cloth clergy shirts, the rotted fabric gave way beneath my fingers.

While none of these displacements was pleasant at first, I would not give a single one of them back. I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path. I have lived through parts of life that no one in her right mind would ever willingly have chosen, finding enough overlooked treasure in them to outweigh my projected wages in the life I had planned. These are just a few of the reasons that I have decided to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and engage it as a spiritual practice instead. The Bible is a great help to me in this practice, since it reminds me that God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.

Lost isn’t a very nice way to describe yourself, but when I say I live in Europe and know I don’t fit there and then come back to the US and know I don’t fit here either, that is exactly what I am trying to say about myself. A dear friend listened to me describe all the ways I feel God doing his work in me while we were having lunch today and said, “Would any of this have happened if you hadn’t gone to Europe?” and I know the answer to that is no. My standard answer to people who ask me how I am doing is “this is the hardest thing I have ever done and the best thing I have ever done.” I am aspiring to embrace my “lostness” as a spiritual practice.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

In America

I was standing at the baggage carousel at Midway Airport in Chicago yesterday, waiting for my bag to come down from my flight from Denver, and as it approached I saw my suitcase as if I were seeing it for the first time. It’s an American Tourister, and so am I. I noticed that it is tattered and worn. So am I. The back is broken, the edges are rounded, and there are threads loose on every corner. I thought, “Dear Lord, save me. I have put every mile on that suitcase.” And as I thought about it, I realized I actually have three other suitcases I use as often as this one, which is another way to say I have put a lot of miles on. I think the difference, though, between me and my suitcase, is that while the worn corners and loose threads of my suitcase make me think it may be time to get another one, hopefully, the worn corners and loose threads of my life are making me a better person. I am praying it isn’t time to trade me in just yet.

I have been in America for almost a week and have been contemplating the question, “What is different here?”

I noticed a few differences almost immediately the first day after I arrived. My friend Brett picked me up at O’Hare last Sunday and we went out to Chili’s. That’s a difference, not only do we not have Chili’s in Dordrecht, we don’t have anything remotely like Chili’s. I got a big hamburger (and tried not to notice that what I ordered was called “The Old Timer” or some similarly insulting name) and also thought, “We sure don’t have anything that tastes like this in Dordrecht.” (People that saw me last week kept saying, “You’ve lost weight” and I kept answering, “You go to the grocery store without a clue what to buy and you’ll lose weight, too.”) But then the moment Brett and I had finished the last bite of our burgers, the waitress grabbed our plates and set a bill down. You wouldn’t think anything of this, but after a few European months I felt like saying, “What is your hurry? I am with my friend whom I haven’t seen for six months and we are having a wonderfully deep conversation. Just let us be, let us sit here and enjoy being human with each other for a while. There isn’t a line of people waiting to take our table. What is with you Chili’s people?” I have come to appreciate that when you get a table in a restaurant, that table is yours for as long as you want.

When I am in the Netherlands I am very aware that I am American and not European. But then I come back here and wonder how American I am. I wrote that I was experiencing culture shock and a mid-life crisis. I am not joking. Another way to say this is that I have been wondering a lot lately who I am and where I fit in this wide world of ours.

Nobody put any wine on any of the tables last week at the Young Life senior leadership team meetings I attended, and I noted that as a difference as well. In Europe, a group wouldn't eat without wine, and Americans are the poorer for that. We're so uptight that if you put wine out the group would suddenly turn into a bunch of drunks. But that doesn't happen. What happens instead is the group relaxes, slows down, and enjoys being with each other. I had a fellow staff member from Spain with me this week in Colorado, and after our first day of non-stop meetings he said, "You could learn something from us...the nap." He is exactly right. We meet way past the point of productivity.

I notice how fat people are here. And how opinionated about stupid things some of them are. There was a large old man on my plane sitting a couple of seats away from me talking loudly to someone else about topics like football, Las Vegas, Chicago, and the Swine Flu and peppering every third sentence with an F-bomb and I wanted to say, “We would all like you more if you kept your mouth shut and left us wondering what you thought instead of painfully revealing it” but instead I of course kept my mouth shut and thought, “I like Europeans.” When we got off the plane he had to have a wheelchair brought to him, and this is probably very unkind, but as near as I could see his disability was his weight. And once again I was thinking that life would be better if he had more oral self-control.

So I drove last night from Chicago to Grand Rapids and am writing this in my Michigan home. It feels really good to be here and to see that, as near as I can tell, Jesse is enjoying the fact that his parents abandoned him. As I was driving into Grand Rapids I passed a business that had a little neon sign next to the highway that simply said, “God Bless America” with a neon flag on it. And I thought, “Here is another difference.” You simply would never see a “God Bless Sweden” or “God Bless Belgium” sign. And it is NOT because those countries are filled with godless heathens. Let me try to explain, I probably won’t do a very good job, but let me try.

A European would never put up a God Bless Belgium sign because their self-image is much more humble than that. They know their country is small, and the main reason they created the European Union is so that together they might be able to have some influence in the world. (Which isn’t exactly working, because “European Union” is an oxymoron, kind of like “United Methodists.”) Every European country is small compared to the two largest powers in the world today, which are the US and China.

There is a bad theology afoot in the US that sees the US as the new Israel. In the Old Testament, God chose Israel as the nation he was going to work through. Somewhere under the surface on this side of the Atlantic, there is a notion that our nation is now God’s chosen vessel. I call this bad theology because the New Testament clearly shows that after the Israel experiment, God chose to work through a person named Jesus instead of a nation. But “God Bless America” feels a bit like this sort of “new Israel” thinking. Of course you are saying, “No, you are reading way too much into a simple sign, we simply want God to bless America” and I think a European would say, “Don’t you have enough already? You are the richest country in the world, you have these amazingly huge sprawling cities, you have unreal national parks, oceans, mountains, deserts, farmland, waterfalls, oil, gold, geo-thermal features…and that’s just Alaska and Hawaii.”

Does that make sense? To a European, God Bless America carries with it a certain arrogance that hints at feeling like God’s favorites. A European mentality would challenge us instead to put up a sign that asks God to bless our enemy – maybe a God Bless Afghanistan sign by the highway. Imagine the scandal that would cause.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Homeland Security and I are Good Friends

Chicago - There is a certain gamble you take when you get on a plane for a transatlantic trip – as you wonder who the airline is going to seat next to you, some total stranger who you are going to sit closer to for the next eight hours than you even sit to your own spouse or loved ones when you are at home. I know some guys who pray for someone they can evangelize on a plane, I always find myself feeling sorry for the people who sit next to them, which is probably a bad thing for someone in my position to say but I don’t feel bad enough about saying it not to say it. Let the blog comments from those saved on planes come rolling in, I can take it. The least I can say is that this is not an approach I am comfortable doing myself. I used to pray that 1) the person next to me would not be monstrously obese or have any huge hygiene issues, and 2) that it would be someone inclined to leave me alone. But I am turning over a new leaf in middle age, I am committed to abandoning my misanthropic tendencies and bringing my honest self to every encounter I have while I trust God with what happens. I have decided I have wasted too much of my life worrying and wondering what others think of me. I want to be free of that and just be open to what happens (as long as the person isn’t monstrously obese or has hygiene problems).

So, today as I was waiting for the plane in Amsterdam I looked at the sea of people also waiting and wondered who I would sit next to and I prayed, “God, send the right person to sit next to me.” He did!

The God I believe in surprises me all the time. He really did today. So, when the young Muslim woman sat down on the plane next to me, I said hello and then thought, “This could be really interesting.” I asked her if she spoke English and she said yes, and then after we got in the air we started talking.

I asked, “How long have you worn a hajib?” And she said, “It’s pronounced hijab” and I apologized for not speaking Arabic correctly and she said, “I am totally amazed that an American knows what to call it,” and then told me that she’s worn it since she was fifteen, and mainly wears it not to cause problems in her family.

I said, “I don’t know, I think it makes Muslim women look mysterious” and a huge smile came across her face and I could tell that made her really happy. Turns out she was from Bahrain and was going to Chicago to attend a convention for architects. (Okay, who saw that coming? The Muslim woman is an architect? I could have guessed all year and not gotten that one.) She had lived in the US for two years in college at, of all places, Mississippi State University. She said her impression of the US had been informed by “Friends” and “LA Law” and she was really surprised when she went to rural Mississippi. She confessed that the first time she flew into the US when she landed in Atlanta she thought she’d be able to see the Statue of Liberty from the plane. I chuckled at that.

Then she turned toward me and said, “Don’t tell me, I want to guess what you do for a living.” “Okay,” I said, “but be prepared to be wrong.”

She said, “You are either a professor or a journalist.”

“Wow,” I said, “those are really good guesses. I studied Journalism in college and I taught as an adjunct professor for about 10 years, so you aren’t far off.”

“Then you must just be a writer.” I told her I like to think of myself as a writer, but sadly the world doesn’t pay me for that. Then I went ahead and told her I was a Christian minister and told her a bit about what I do and where I live. I was fully prepared for “Christian minister” to end our conversation.

“Is that sort of like a missionary?” she asked.

“Yes, it is exactly like a missionary,” I said.

And now it was my turn to be surprised because she said, “I really like missionaries. The first ten years of my education I attended a Catholic school in Bahrain. They were great people, and I often think how blessed I am in life to have had contact with those missionaries.”

Our conversation went from there. Like every non-US person I encounter she asked a number of questions and made a number of comments about US foreign policy. Among the most poignant:

• Saddam was a truly bad man and I am glad the US took him out. I just wish you could have taken him out in a way that didn’t cause my cousin in Iraq to lose his eye and my family in Iraq to lose their homes.
• I have traveled in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan and it is a wild place. I think the United States and other nations of the world need to be there.
• I don’t understand the health care debate in the United States. As a non-US citizen, it makes no sense to me that your country will spend trillions of dollars for aid to Africa and not figure out a way to insure your own poorest and most vulnerable people.
• What was that Sarah Palin thing all about?
• I wish your country would send more missionaries and fewer soldiers around the world.

I asked her if she felt judged by Americans she has encountered and she said that she has had some very ugly experiences in the United States with people saying very mean things to her, but that the Americans who have taken the time to get to know her find she is very different from the prejudices people have. I also asked her about how it is for her to get into the US, wondering if she has a hard time at customs. She said, “Homeland Security and I have become good friends, they add an element of adventure to every trip to the US I take.”

I said I was sorry for the Americans who judged her and that was their loss for not meeting an exceptional person. I told her how sad I was that some of those people were Christians and that as far as I can tell Jesus is about love and not hate, and I thought she appreciated hearing that.

As we approached Chicago the plane banked over Lake Michigan and she said, “Is that a lake? It’s bigger than the Persian Gulf!” The pilot come on the intercom and said the temperature was 8 degrees (about 46 fahrenheit) and she shivered and said she’d never seen snow. I told her about how much snow we got in Michigan and about snow days and she said, “The one day it rained last year it lasted for two hours and I stayed home to watch it” and I thought how very, very different our worlds and life experiences were. She stuck out her hand and said, “By the way, my name is Shaima” and when she was doing her customs form I saw that she had five names on her passport and one of them was Jasmin and one of them was Mohamed and again I thought about what different worlds we came from. And then in a moment of inspiration I said, “I don’t think you have to worry about being cold here, Shaima,” and she asked me why not and I said, “you’ve already got your head covered” and she laughed and laughed and I thought “I’ve still got it” and “I never, ever imagined a day would come in my life when I could make a Muslim woman laugh about her head cover." What a world we live in.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Here's to Making the Time Good

One quick story before I get on a plane and head for the United States. A little while ago I was standing outside at a shopping center with Maury while Gretchen was inside getting some groceries. An older man came up to me and said something in Dutch. This is not good, I thought, because older folks usually don’t speak English as well as younger ones. I tried to understand what he was saying and then asked him if he spoke English. He looked troubled.

“Ik spreek beetje Nederlands,” I said, and he answered “I speak a little English” and then again in Dutch he asked me something I didn’t understand. This time he followed it by pointing at his wrist.

“Oh, the time?” I said. “You want to know what time it is? Hoe laat is het?”

“Nee,” he said, shaking his head. And then he said something again in Dutch and I could clearly hear he was using the word winkel. Well, we were in a winkel center, a shopping center, and there were winkels everywhere. And suddenly what he wanted to say came to him in English.

“I want to make the time good,” he said, and I looked deeply into his eyes and said, “I think we all do, sir, it’s sort of the most important question in life, isn’t it? How do we make our time good? It is one of the philosophical questions of the ages.” Except I didn’t say that, but I did think it while I looked at him. What I said instead was, “I don’t understand.”

But really, how do we make our time good? What entirely does that mean for us? It is a really deep, profound and mysterious question.

And just as he was getting ready to leave me in frustration I suddenly grasped what he was asking me in Dutch. “Sir,” I said, “Are you asking me where you can get your watch fixed in this area?” and he brightened up noticeably and said, “Ja, Ja.”

Sadly, I had to tell him that I have no idea where he can get his watch fixed. I think I might have some ideas how to make our time good, but he wasn’t really interested in hearing them.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The World is Shrinking

One definition, I suppose, of having an “open mind” is having the ability to keep opposing ideas in your head at the same time without feeling conflicted because you can see the truth of both sides.

For example, I have been feeling the separation of miles across oceans and feel how really, really big our planet is. But at the same time, I am absolutely convinced the world is shrinking. Here are a few ways I’ve noticed the world getting smaller lately.

My uncle, a truly gentle and good man, died yesterday after a short bout with cancer. Through the magic of Facebook, we knew of his death less than an hour after it happened. Just imagine how long it would have taken 100 years or so ago for a nephew in the Netherlands to learn of his uncle’s death in the United States.

We were at the store this morning and I noticed the radio was playing a Paul McCartney song that came out when I was in high school. I was listening to a song by a British singer that was recorded in New Orleans that I used to listen to in Michigan but now was hearing in the Netherlands.

Last night I saw a commercial that said, “When you need a bank in Africa, choose Zenith Bank.” After that a tourism ad for Qatar came on.

I have also seen tourism ads for Moscow, Cuba and Iceland lately. There are great prices for Iceland these days, but you are going to want to bring some flashlights with you because it’s starting to be dark most of the time there. Hence the good deals. I still really want to go to Iceland sometime. I like geo-thermal features. (Which makes me think of my friend David Bast's great line on a family vacation to Yellowstone: Eventually we developed GTFFS. Me: What is GTFFS? Dave: Geo-thermal Feature Fatigue Syndrome.) I have wanted to go to Iceland ever since I first heard the story that Iceland and Greenland got their names to confuse invaders. Iceland is beautiful and green, Greenland is a massive glacier. I have no idea if that story is true, but I like it. I also want to go to Iceland because Bjork is from there, and as I am sure you all remember, she once wore a swan to the Oscars.

Every Sunday afternoon Eurosport 2 shows Big 10 Football and a couple of weeks ago I saw Michigan-Michigan State on my TV in the Netherlands. How strange is that? They take a three hour long game and someone who has never seen a football game before edits it into a one hour package. How do I know the editor is a novice? The first thing they showed was Michigan kicking a field goal. Then a “fast forward” button appears on the screen and Michigan is kicking another field goal, but I can see the score before that was Michigan State 7 – Michigan 3. Then another fast forward button and it’s the third period and MSU has a big lead and the announcer says “Total domination by the Spartans so far this afternoon.” You couldn’t have proved that by me.

I was in Schipol airport in Amsterdam a while back and noticed the plane parked at the gate next to mine was heading for Tehran. I don’t have any idea if someone holding an American passport can even get on a plane to Tehran these days, but if I need to go there I know where I can catch a plane.

I was out with Maury the other day and we walked for a while behind a skinny Dutch kid whose pants were sagging and he had a pair of huge earphones on, which were blasting a song I am not familiar with, but whose lyrics were “so you want to be a thug.” I am absolutely convinced the kid had no concrete idea what being a thug really means, and if he did encounter an actual thug, that thug might find this Dutch kid extremely amusing.

And this most of all … on Sunday I get on a plane in Amsterdam at 10:30am and will get off that same plane at noon in Chicago. How I wish the trip was only 90 minutes – we gain 7 hours on the way. But that flight is the start of two weeks in Colorado and Michigan and the chance to re-connect with many dear, dear folks. I’m looking forward to it.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Why Did I Weep?

I counted 12 Kleenex in the trash next to the desk when I had finished writing this. Hope it connects with a tender place inside of you, too….

We do a language exchange with a young Dutch woman named Hilde on Monday mornings. She wants to get better in English and we need all the help we can get in Dutch. Hilde especially needs help with reading and writing English and we decided to read a book together. So, I scanned my shelves. One of the hardest things about moving was choosing which books to bring. Books weigh a lot, and I had way too many of them. So I limited myself. 26 books by Frederick Buechner made it, of course, and Patrick O’Brian’s 20 volume Aubrey/Maturin series. Dale Bruner’s glorious two volume Matthew commentary also came, some books are worth so much more than their weight. I also decided to bring the five books Max DePree has published, and my eyes lit on his gem, “Dear Zoe.” The book is a collection of letters Max wrote to his granddaughter who was born at 24 weeks. Hilde is a new mother, and I thought Max’s book would do the job perfectly. It has. Hilde can’t wait to find out more about Zoe every week.

So this week while we were reading, I started crying. It is a beautiful, heart touching story, but I’ve read it a number of times without crying before. I’ve been asking myself, “Why did I weep this time?”

I posted a little hint of this in September in what I wrote the day after my birthday. I’ve been feeling the gulf of separation (maybe that should be the new name of the Atlantic Ocean) between most of the people who have filled my life and where I am today. I am sure I am now feeling culture shock, which might be best defined as the realization you aren’t on vacation anymore. I also mentioned that I reconnected with long-lost friends, and that’s caused me to be doing a lot of reflection on my life of late. I think the weight of all those things is why the combination of Max’s tender words and tough questions he was asking God about his granddaughter made me cry. He asked God, “Why do I have to start all over at 64?” and I feel the same question minus 13 years. And then there is Max himself. He’s been a special friend and mentor to me for over 20 years. I was dumbfounded when the CEO of one of West Michigan’s largest companies invited me to have lunch with him because he wanted to get to know me better. Wasn’t that supposed to happen the other way around? I miss being able to call him up and drive to Holland to spend time with him. He lives in the wrong Holland! Max personifies wisdom, grace, eloquence and elegance. In his book “Leadership is An Art” he has a chapter called “Why Should I Weep?” My question is a variation on that theme.

I think I should cry more. One of my favorite stories about Frederick Buechner comes from Dale Brown, who hosted FB in his home many years ago for a speech at Calvin College. Dale said he got up early in the morning and heard the television. He went downstairs and there was Frederick Buechner, sitting in front of Dale’s TV set, crying. The night before, while Buechner had given his speech at Calvin, the Rodney King-inspired riots in Los Angeles had broken out. Buechner was watching the news and crying. I want to be like that – I want to be soft enough so that the things that break God’s heart also break mine.

What makes you weep?

I’ve thought of few more things that always move me:

• When Amanda and Jesse were little sometimes I would stand in the hall outside their rooms and look at them asleep and my throat would catch and a tear come to my eye. They were so beautiful and innocent.
• When I read the book “Charlotte’s Web” to Amanda I couldn’t read anymore after Charlotte died and Wilbur the pig remembered her by saying, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” That’s all I ever wanted to be, too.
• Three movies – “The Wizard of Oz,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Forrest Gump.” With Oz it’s when Dorothy keeps saying, “There’s no place like home.” And she was an orphan, folks! The longing for home is one of strongest pulls inside of us, and we are all on some sort of Oz-like quest, just trying to get back where we belong. With “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it is when Jimmy Stewart sees what life would have been like if he had not been there, and through his eyes we see the absolute goodness of one man’s life. Plus Jimmy Stewart was such a great actor and the angst and terror in his voice and face are extremely powerful. Most of the time when that movie’s on I can’t even bear to watch it, because I know it will tear me up. With “Forrest Gump” it is the last scene where Forrest puts little Forrest on the bus. Again it is innocence and beauty and the goodness of life that gets me.
• When I preached at my grandmother’s funeral and I told of my hope that in heaven my grandmother would be united with her own mother, who had died when my grandmother was four or five years old. Her father abandoned her then, leaving her to be raised by her grandparents, way up at the top of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I was fine when I wrote the lines, but found I couldn’t say them out loud very well.

How about you? What makes you weep?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Man and His Dog

After a few days of rain, today broke crisp and clear and seemed like the perfect day to grab a 20 minute noon walk with Maury, the dog. I’m not surprised by the rain; after all it is the rainy season, which as near as I can tell runs from about August 15 to June 30 annually. But the sun is shining today so it was a good day to get out and enjoy it. Maury and I took one of our favorite treks, straight up our street and over a canal until we get to a river, and then we walked along a dike above the river until crossing another bridge and heading for home. Along our way today we encountered:

A couple arguing loudly in Dutch who slammed their front door shut when they became aware that we were passing. Some things translate into any culture.

31 sheep. Counting 31 sheep makes me yawn.

Two cows.

One noisy, lonesome duck. I felt a great empathy for him, because I’ve been feeling like a noisy, lonesome duck lately. More on that in my next post.

Two evil, malicious, vile, sneaky, snarling cats.

Ten other dogs. Maury greeted each one with an anxious blend of sniffing, posturing and curiosity, wondering if this is friend or foe. It occurred to me today that he and I are not too much different, except thankfully I don’t do the sniffing (although the pheromone research people say that I do). I’m just much better than Maury at hiding my anxiety.

A woman dressed as a Japanese Geisha on a bicycle. Someone recently told me a great past time here is to play, “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on a bike?” This is definitely an entry.

Maury is my steady companion, the only friend I have who greets me every day with fresh enthusiasm. Isn’t there a prayer to the effect of “God, help me be the person my dog thinks I am”? I wrote this poem in Maury’s honor and I hope you enjoy it.

Blessed are the Meek

at five or six am
when I am asleep on my side
you hop on the bed
and lie down spine to spine with me
sticking your head into my pillow
snorting and squirming
into the bouquet of dead skin cells, sweat and hair follicles
you find there.

An unhappy voice comes
from the other side of the bed saying,
he’s rutting on you, you are both disgusting,

But I like it.
It sort of feels like a massage
and besides
it’s a reminder that,
despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,
old boy,
there is still a wild beast somewhere deep inside both of us.

Odds and Ends

I need to report that I have a Dutch driver’s license in my wallet! In addition to that, I have a new train identity card. These join my already existing Dutch residency card to make a tri-fecta of cards adorned with the “Worst Picture of Me Ever Taken.”

My dad asked me the other day, “When do you sleep?” I told him that like any normal person I sleep at night and occasionally in the afternoon at my desk. Then I said, “Why do you ask?” He said, “Because you seem to post your blog entries at weird hours.” A little explanation might clear this up. The Google folks that run this blog site are based someplace on the US West Coast and all blog entries are actually posted 9 hours before what the site says. If the math is too hard to figure out, just rest assured that I sleep at night.