Friday, August 28, 2009

Quintessentially Dutch

Today I was walking in downtown Dordrecht. It started to rain. Hard. I had a hooded sweatshirt on, it being August and all, and I pulled the hood up over my head. There were a lot of people downtown. Not one other person had on a raincoat, or a hat, or was carrying an umbrella. They walked by like nothing was happening, while I tried to shrink inside my sweatshirt. I thought they were looking at me like I was some sort of limp piece of stroopwaffle. Obviously, these people are way more used to being wet than I am. Being wet is a quintessentially Dutch experience. Gretchen and I talked about this tonight and came up with a few other things to put on the list.

• The common Dutch expression, “de volgende keer betaal ik,” which means “next time I’ll pay.”

• Letting the pooh fall where it may. We picked up Maury’s pooh on our walks the first couple of weeks we were here. Eventually we realized we were the only people doing it. The thing is, there aren’t any lawns, so when he goes it’s always in a public area. They have little red signs in places they don’t want you to let your dog go and green signs where the dog can go. Just like traffic lights. My theory is that whole dikes – canals – polders – windmills thing they tell you about how they keep their below-sea-level country from flooding is a cover for the real reason. The country is built on a foundation of petrified pooh.

• The question, “do you want curry sauce or mayonnaise with your French fries?”

• Having your wife lovingly and tenderly scream, “YOU ARE NOW DRIVING ON A BIKE PATH!” as she burrows down in her seat and hides her head under the map you are trying to read to find the store where they have television sets on sale. Never found it. I learned later that not only wasn’t I on the right street, I wasn’t even in the right city. Oops. I now own a GPS. I confessed my mistake to a Dutch friend who said, “Relax, we’ve all done it.”

• Hearing a loud “blaaaaaap” sound behind me while walking the dog, thinking some drunk guy just let out an enormous belch, and turning around to see a sheep staring at us.

• Buying a dining room table and having it come – without warning – unassembled. It required 75 screws to put it together and had four pre-drilled screw holes to get you started in the right direction. Where is Norm from “This Old House” when you need him? I thought, “If I wanted to build my own dining room table I would have rustled up a couple of chipmunks, gone out in the woods and gnawed down a tree, not bought it from a store.”

• Telling Gretchen “If you feel like you’ve got one of those stripes running up your behind just turn around and come home” as she was setting off on her bike for church one drizzly Sunday morning. I was staying home because I had to pick up a friend at the train station. She told some other friends at church what I’d said to her and a Dutch guy later congratulated me on starting to sound like a true Dutch man. I thought I was giving good advice, but apparently my comment wasn’t very sensitive.

• Getting excited because our cable TV package includes ESPN Classic only to learn it is European ESPN Classic. Tonight they are showing the 1959 football (no, not that kind of football) match between Liverpool and Leeds.

• TV shows that start at random times. We love “All Creatures Great and Small” and it’s on most every night from 5:35 to 6:20. Except last night when they showed “Sesame Street” followed by a bike race instead. Today the TV Guide said “All Creatures” would be on but "Sesame Street" came on again. We were about to turn it off when we realized “Sesame Street” was at our language level. So we watched it. And then at 6:10 “All Creatures” started. Weird.

That’s about it for late on a Friday night. Did I mention I love being here?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In Brugge

Or is it in Bruges? Both, actually, which I will explain later. Gretchen and I just came back from spending three days in Brugge celebrating our 24th anniversary, which was August 23rd.

I’m posting some pictures below that don’t come close to capturing how beautiful this city is. I am not going to do a Rick Steves travelogue here, I’m just going to say it is a two hour drive from our house and I would place a visit to Brugge at the top of my “must-do” list of things within two hours of here.

In these pictures you will see a tower – known as the Belfort – that was immortalized in the movie “In Bruges.” There is a picture of the view from the top of the tower. There are 366 winding steps to the top, and Gretchen and I had the aural pleasure of being at the top at 11am Monday, when the carillon played a song and followed that with eleven “bongs” of the bell that we could feel as much as hear. Wow!

There was a symmetry to being at the top of that tower on August 24th celebrating our 24th wedding anniversary even if we were married on August 23rd. Let me explain.

Most of you know we were married under unusual circumstances. Our lives forever changed 24 years ago, on a Thursday night late in July, one month before the date we were supposed to get married, when Gretchen suffered a massive stroke. She was 24 years old and had the stroke a few minutes after coming home from work. I will always remember things like driving 70mph down a residential street on the way to the hospital with her in the seat next to me, paralyzed on her left side and having seizures on her right. It was terrifying. After a week in critical care and another week in Holland Hospital, she was moved to the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Center in Grand Rapids, which specializes in helping people who have had brain injuries. A team of people worked on her case – I remember a neurologist, a social worker, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, plus several nurses. One of the many things we had to decide was what to do about our upcoming wedding. The folks at the hospital were concerned that going ahead with the wedding as planned would be too much for Gretchen.

What we all agreed on was that we would change our plans dramatically. We changed the date of our wedding from August 24th to August 23rd (which is why the inside of my wedding ring has “8-24-85” inscribed on it). We eliminated almost our entire guest list and never sent our invitations out. We decided instead to make our rehearsal our wedding, and our rehearsal dinner our reception. We sat down (because Gretchen couldn’t walk) in the front of the church and the 25 or 30 people we were married in front of were then seated. I recommend sitting down to get married. Royalty does it, and it helps control the knocking in your knees.

The folks at the hospital gave us a weekend pass – we were married on Friday evening, spent Saturday at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in GR, and on Sunday afternoon Gretchen had to go back to the hospital. I went to a friend’s house and slept on his couch, looking at the new ring on my finger and thinking how weird it was that I was newly married and sleeping on a couch. Gretchen stayed in the hospital for another month. A month or so after that she was able to stop using the wheelchair. About a year later she returned to work. Five years after that she was finally cleared to start driving again. What a way to start life together. But what a rich life it has been. Who could have imagined all that we’ve experienced over the years? Who could have imagined we would start in Holland, Michigan and wind up in the real Holland?

So I stood atop the tower in Brugge and felt elated. I was elated by the view and was so happy just to be in that beautiful place. I was laughing every time that bell rang and shook my bones. More than that I was elated because I was feeling so blessed as I thought about our life together. And I was marveling that Gretchen had just walked up 366 winding stone steps. But the 366 winding stone steps were nothing compared to surviving a stroke, or learning how to walk again, or giving birth to two children, or putting up with me for 24 years!

It was very good to be in Brugge.*

*Every Belgian city has two names, one Flemish, the other French. Most of the time you can figure the two names out – Brugge/Bruges is not difficult. But some are more of a challenge. I don’t know how anyone unfamiliar with this would know to follow the signs for Luik if they were heading to Liege or Bergen if they needed to go to Mons. Oh those Belgians.

Brugge Pictures

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Calvin and Us

If you hear the words “Calvinist” or “Calvinism,” do they bring positive or negative images to your mind? Do you think of a theological system of belief, particularly about salvation, or do you think more of a way of life? Do you think, “Those are the sort of people I want to spend time with?” or “those are the words that best describe me”? My guess is that in West Michigan the reaction to these words is more positive, while in the majority of other places it’s negative. Here are some words used to describe what it means to be a Calvinist from the “Calvin and Us” exhibit going on this summer at the Grote Kerk in Dordrecht: “A wagging finger, doing your duty, saving your pennies, having just one biscuit with your coffee, and a simply furnished home on display to all the world through a large front window.” None of those words has anything to do with the doctrine of salvation.

In the Netherlands, at least, the word Calvinism has come to denote a certain religious severity and austerity. There isn’t much fun or joy associated with it. As we walked through the exhibit in Dordrecht we heard some “man on the street” interviews with Dutch people who condescendingly described Calvinism as the way of their grandparents. The people being interviewed wanted to be sure they made clear these sorts of things were from a time in the past – the sort of stereotypical “Dutch-ness” that is long gone.

John Calvin was born 500 years ago. What do you know about him? He wasn’t Dutch. He never even set foot in the Netherlands. He was French, but most of his adult life was spent in Geneva. Calvin was, without doubt, a person of amazing intellect and ability. He was a prolific preacher, teacher, and writer. And like anyone important enough to get an “ism” associated with his or her name, there is a bit of a gap between John Calvin and Calvinism. I find it helpful to think of Calvin in his context – coming out of the abuses that caused the Reformation in the first place. Calvin wanted us to know that salvation came from God alone, that there was nothing human beings could do or pay to gain their salvation, that it was 100% a gift of God. Affirming that God alone is sovereign (and man is not) led him to predestination. But Calvin wasn’t pulling these ideas out of thin air; he was finding them in the Bible. Of course, not everyone reads the Bible the same way.

We went to the Calvin exhibit on Thursday afternoon last week. Then on Saturday Gretchen and I visited Amsterdam. I was wondering, as we walked by a “coffee shop” and smelled the strong odor of marijuana coming from inside, how the country that perhaps more than any other in the world embraced a rigid, conservative form of Calvinism, gave rise to legalized pot and the red light district? How did that happen?

The history of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands is a history of several splits and divisions, with each group attempting to express the true Reformed faith. Today the Netherlands is home to a vast array of religious and secular belief systems. One survey I saw recently said that 50% of the Dutch population openly says they do not believe in God, the highest percentage of any country on earth. How can the this country be the home of many religious schisms and at the same time be noted for tolerance?

Maybe I’m hung up on schisms because I live in Dordrecht. This is where the Synod of Dort took place in 1618-1619. The Canons of Dort were first read in the Grote Kerk, where the Calvin exhibit is taking place. I saw a drawing of the Synod of Dort – there was a huge circle of men wearing black with those funny white clown collars on surrounding “the remonstrants,” whose orthodoxy was on trial at the Synod. (The remostrants lost, by the way.) The Canons are where the acronym “TULIP” to describe Calvinism comes from, and fun and easy to defend doctrines like double predestination are fully articulated. One of the ironic things, of course, is that while the Canons of Dort are still a doctrinal standard of Reformed Churches, the theology of the great majority of people in Reformed Churches today is much more in line with the remonstrants, who believed in free will – that humans have a role to play in making decisions about their salvation.

Here are some pictures from the Grote Kerk and the exhibit. I never know exactly how these will be laid out on the blog page, but here is what I’ve included: The Grote Kerk from the outside and inside, two views of Dordrecht from the top of the church tower, and some of the exhibit. The picture with a lot of Dutch on it asks, “Who would we be without Calvin?” I included the picture with all the lines showing various divisions within the Reformed churches here because this subject in particular fascinates me. I look at all those splits and wonder if this is just human nature or something special in the Dutch psyche. I don’t think the non-churched world is impressed when you have several variations on the same theme (who are a bit at odds with each other) in buildings a few blocks apart.

How does all of this strike you? I aired a bit of the schism theme a couple weeks ago, so let me ask a different question. Is it just me or is there something a bit schizophrenic about one nation going from hyper-conservatism to hyper-liberalism? More than once people (in West Michigan) have suggested to me that all the religious people left the Netherlands a century and a half ago and migrated to the US and you see what was left behind. Those comments are said a bit “tongue in cheek,” but much truth is said in jest. Here are a few lines from the other side, from a book here commenting on the migration of Dutch people to the US: Holland’s most identifiable contribution to the emerging continent can be felt this day in the State of Michigan where large concentrations of Dutch-Americans (the Michi-Dutch) have inhabited the picturesque landscape…the Michi-Dutch haven’t changed much over the past 150+ years…As staunch churchgoers and moralistic merchants, they believe they are THE true Dutch…Many of the second- and later-generation Dutch in western Michigan have no idea what the real Holland is like.

In other words, I think today’s Dutch reconcile the “schizophrenic” nature I referred to earlier by thinking that they have progressed from a repressed past.

What do you think?

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Worst Picture of Me Ever Taken

This is my Dutch residency card, which will be in my wallet for the next five years. The picture would be more appropriate on a wanted poster. I look like the sort of guy who runs amok in a post office or comes unhinged and visits the neighbors with a garden implement. Let me tell you how this picture happened.

The day we moved here we flew from Chicago to Amsterdam. Our dear friends Chuck and Tim Ferguson volunteered to drive us to Chicago so we could have a direct flight to reduce the time Maury the dog would have to be in a crate. So, on that June day, after a solid four hours of sleep, we got up (we’d been up late the night before, trying to make sure we weren’t forgetting anything), finished the last few details, and the Fergusons picked us and all of our luggage up for the almost four hour drive to O’Hare. I wasn’t worried about the short night – that would just make it easier to sleep on the plane. Everything went fine, but since it was a warm day, the airline folks told us to wait a while before we gave them Maury, and because of that we were the last people on the plane.

The anxiety I was feeling about picking up my life at age 50 and moving to another continent was balanced by the excitement I felt about a great surprise waiting for Gretchen on the plane. Through some fluke, when I went to check-in online the day before on the Northwest web site, I was asked if I wanted to choose seats. We were traveling on a KLM flight on a Northwest ticket, and usually when doing that you don’t know where you are going to sit until you get to the airport. But this one time the web site asked me if I wanted to choose seats. I said yes, and then it showed me all the seats on the airplane. All the seats – starting at row one. Being no fool, I clicked on the first row of World Business Class and it gave me those two seats. Now I have enough experience flying overseas to know it is impossible to get seats in World Business Class without spending both money and frequent flyer miles. This was truly a fluke, and I jumped on it. It would be my first time sitting up front.

I decided not to tell Gretchen, because deep in my heart I couldn’t actually believe it would happen. I carry around way too much mid-western guilt and shame to let myself think we were worthy of World Business Class. I didn’t want her to be disappointed when the airline agent looked us over and said, “No, I don’t think so.” After all, my travel guru Don Hux had found these tickets from an airline wholesaler. The advertised price on the web was $2300 for a one-way ticket to Amsterdam. We bought ours for $400. (You know that thing about the airline guaranteeing their lowest fares are found on their web site? Well…we beat their best fare by $3800 for two tickets.)

Thanks to this web site fluke, we were going to sit in World Business Class on two one-way tickets bought wholesale. When we checked in the ticket agent said, “That’s odd … you are sitting up front on economy tickets.” This was the moment of truth! But he simply shrugged his shoulders, and that was that. We were in!!! I was feeling so great. As we entered the plane, Gretchen turned right to head toward the poor, tired huddled masses yearning to be free, but I gently and lovingly said, “No, no, my pet, this way” and proceeded to march proudly into the promised land of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. This was going to be the best ocean crossing we’d ever done. We had so much legroom Shaquille O’Neal could have laid down in front of us. We were soon airborne, and then we were served a lovely dinner. “A little more wine, sir?” “Don’t mind if I do.” Now it was time to relax with a book or a movie and then we’d lay our wonder seats down and close our eyes and wait for the Sandman to visit World Business Class. Next thing we’d know we’d be waking up refreshed as we circled Amsterdam.

But my somnolent dreams were rudely interrupted when Gretchen said, “There’s something wrong with my seat. It won’t recline.”

“Well,” I said, “you probably don’t know how to do it, this being your first time in World Business Class and all. Let me show you.” Like I knew. I tried, and couldn’t get my seat to recline either. We weren’t the only ones. Turns out the power for the seats wasn’t working in the entire World Business Class section. What was this, some sort of cruel joke courtesy of the peasants in steerage? Eventually the flight crew came through and manually reclined our seats – about 30 degrees. The foot rests wouldn’t come out. That whole thing about the special seat that reclines to horizontal so you’re more in a bed than a seat? That didn’t happen. We were more or less vertical. I started to think of how I could complain to the airline. They should give me World Business Class for life. But then I remembered this was the seat they had mistakenly given me for a ticket I paid 20% of the published rate for. I didn’t see my complaint going far.

Well, we could make up for a non-reclining seat just by shutting our eyes and sleeping. When life gives you lemons, just make a little lemonade, you know? But when it was nice and dark and slumber time, the toddler in the seat across the aisle from us started screaming. Babies cry. Toddlers scream. She just started wailing and wouldn’t stop. She screamed like someone standing on the runway trying to be heard above the roar of the jet engines. I put earplugs in and noise-cancelling headphones on, but her screaming was the sound equivalent of an armor-piercing bullet. And it never stopped. One hour, two hours, three hours. Every once in a while she’d sort of wind down, and then all you had to do was count to five and she was off again. She was wailing like someone having her teeth drilled without Novocain as beavers gnawed at her flesh. At one point I opened an eye and saw the child was asleep and still screaming. How did she do that? Why couldn’t I sleep and listen to her in my sleep? Finally, magically, she stopped. Thank you, God. I looked at my watch, which I had set to Amsterdam time. It was 4:21. At 4:45, exactly 24 minutes later, the flight crew turned on the cabin lights and started serving breakfast. Neither Gretchen nor I had slept.

Our plane landed about 6am. We got our luggage, got our dog (who was very, very happy to see us) and walked through customs unimpeded – I thought four giant suitcases, two carry-ons, a squirming dog and large dog crate might draw someone’s interest, but it didn’t. Our friend Miquel was waiting to pick us up. We needed to stop at our immigration attorney’s office in Amsterdam to get some important papers – but we had to wait a while for the office to open. So, we had our second breakfast of the morning and then went to the lawyer’s.

Because we wanted to get things rolling as soon as possible, the lawyer had made an appointment for us to be at the immigration offices in The Hague the next morning. So we had to pick up the forms from his office and then we needed one more thing: passport photos taken to Dutch specifications. The lawyer told us not to get them done in the US, because they would be rejected. The Dutch have very specific rules that are not the same as the US rules. Different size pictures, no smiling, no glasses, etc.

So, after going to the law office and getting our papers, we headed out for the hour drive to Dordrecht. By then it was mid-morning, and we had an appointment to meet our house rental agent and landlord at one o’clock. We made it to Dordrecht in time, unloaded all the luggage from the van Miquel had borrowed for the occasion, returned it to its owner, retrieved Miquel’s car, and then headed to our new house to get our keys and sign our lease. At this point it was two in the afternoon. Miquel turned to us and said, “We need to go get your pictures taken.”

And so this is how I look when you add the stress of starting a new life to not having slept (or showered or shaved) for a few days. I know the raw material isn’t much to work with, but this picture is brutal. And now I have it on my residency card in my wallet for the next five years. I look like Charles Manson with Bozo the Clown’s hair. My eyes are forced wide open because all I wanted to do was shut them and go to sleep.

Gretchen’s picture is similarly awful, and out of love and respect for her I will not post it on the internet. But I will tell you this – and I am not making this up – after we submitted Gretchen’s photo to immigration we got a letter saying she needed to show them proof that she had insurance for psychological hospitalization.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dutch For Beginners

Here’s a picture of us pretending to be hard at work at “taal school” with our Dutch tutor Pieter Hoogvliet. We’re enjoying our time with Pieter and have learned, among other things…

Dutch vowels are called “klinkers” and sounds are called “klankers,” so klinkers make klankers.

Some Dutch words make more sense than English words. A verb is called a “werkwoord” and honestly that sheds more light on what verbs do than the word “verb.”

The Dutch word for spring is “lente,” which explains the name of that season of the church year.

We simply cannot pronounce the vowels “u” or “uu” or “eu” as they are supposed to be said. I take comfort in the fact that Dutch people can’t say “th” or “z.” They have words that use the letter Z but they pronounce it like an “S.” They can’t get their tongue up on their teeth to do th or z.

“Van” is the Dutch word for “of” or “from” and “de” is “the,” so:
Van de Molen means from the windmill
Van Putten means from the wells
Van Donker means from the dark
Van Buren means from the neighbors
De Vos means the fox, which explains Fox Motors in Grand Rapids
De Hoog means tall and
De Jong means exactly what you think it means.

The Dutch word for baseball is “honkbal.” I don’t know why.

Sometimes it’s really easy to speak Dutch – to say “the name is” you say “de naam is.”

But we get confused by these Dutch words because they mean something else in English:
Wil = want
Of = or
Rug = back
Hoe (pronounced “who”) = how
Burger = citizen (I was really excited about an “Amerkaan burger” until I learned this was a reference to me.)

The most fun is doing the guttural “g” which sounds like clearing your throat. I love to ask people if they’ve had enough to eat – genoug gegeten. Then there’s goedemorgen - you can spit all over people just saying hello.

Some people have wondered why we’re even bothering to learn Dutch, since you really can ask almost anyone here if they speak English and they’ll say yes. The answer is easy – all you have to do is go to the grocery store. We noticed some things had stickers on them that said “reclame.” We both thought it meant something like reclaimed and figured it was stuff past its expiration date and steered clear of it. Then we learned reclame means advertised. So, we were staying away from the things on sale. But that’s not the worst - one day soon after we’d arrived Gretchen picked up a package of lunch meat to put into our cart. It looked like roast beef, but I read the label and said, “I don’t think so.” The mystery meat was labeled “paardenrookvlees.” I knew that paard means horse, rook means smoke and vlees means meat. I later asked a Dutch friend if I was reading that correctly and she said sure, that she loves horse meat, it’s very light and very good if you are trying to lose weight. I first made a face and then said, “you’ve got a point, I would lose weight if you served me horse meat.” She said, “so what, you people eat deer and turkeys.” I didn’t grow up in a deer hunting family, so I’ve never had much venison, but I plead guilty on turkey. Gobble, gobble. I miss turkey. And hamburger buns. And yellow mustard. And Reeses. And ice. And Wendy’s. And Thousand Island dressing. Oh well, I comfort myself knowing I can get all the fresh eel and herring I want.

This week we were working on a bunch of sentences that were negations of a previous sentence that included possessive pronouns. So, if the first sentence was “Heir is je kantoor” (Here is your office) he would have us negate it and say “no, that is our office,” which is “nee hoor, dat is ons kantoor.” We did similar sentences with autos, calendars, cups of coffee, etc. Every sentence began with “nee hoor.” Nee is pronounced “nay” and hoor is pronounced … well, it’s pronounced “whore.” So with every sentence we were saying “nay whore, that is her car” or “nay whore, that is my coffee.” I felt like I was in junior high. It’s almost as bad as seeing speed bump signs in Sweden that say “farthinder.”

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?

One last reflection from being in Sweden last week...

There are worse places in the world to be on an August night than on the shores of the Baltic Sea. After two days of meetings with folks in Vallentuna and Uppsala, I headed to Vaxholm for dinner my last night in Sweden with an American couple and another couple with a “mixed” marriage – he’s Swedish and she’s American. Walking around Vaxholm feels a bit like walking around Grand Haven, Michigan – it’s a very popular resort destination in the Stockholm archipelago. If you aren’t familiar with it, Stockholm is part of an archipelago of thousands of islands on the Baltic Sea. The sea doesn’t look like a sea, it looks like a lake or river. Vaxholm’s many colored wooden buildings are charming, as is the boardwalk in front of all the boats in the marina. You probably wouldn’t want to be there in December, but on a summer night it was unbeatable.

In the midst of this idyllic place, lying on a little island right smack dab in the middle of the Baltic, is an impressive fort, first built in something like 1500, because Vaxholm was the place to repel invaders to Stockholm who would come by the sea – from Russia, maybe, or Finland, or worst of all, Denmark. As we walked through town we found other fortifications, including a battery of cannons that was operational from 1700 until the early 1900’s – seems like the Swedes gave up on the idea of defending themselves at about the same time that World War I broke out. They were neutral in both great wars of the last century and today they don’t have much of military because, as the Swede I ate dinner with put it, “we haven’t had a war for 200 years, so we’ve decided to spend our money on schools.” They do have a small military, and according to my Swedish friend, they are the best in the world with submarines (which ought to count for something), but really, if they were forced to, they probably couldn’t (and wouldn’t) defend their country.

Sweden’s neutrality in World War II was controversial. The Nazis were able to travel through Sweden to invade Norway, adding yet another reason to the long list of why these two countries don’t like each other. Many Swedes left home and enlisted in the armies of other allied countries. In some ways, this was the perfect solution for the government – those that want to can go fight, but officially our stance is neutrality.

It was interesting to be seeing these relics of Sweden’s military past in the context of what I was doing. I spent an afternoon in the Young Life office, going through relics of our past --dozens and dozens of files. Our staff members have been asking what to keep from the “previous administration.” Most of it needs to be recycled, but I agreed to look through it first. I pulled out a file that was labeled “churches” and on top there was a letter dated about ten years ago from a church in the US. The letter began, “Dear Missionary Family, Our church has been going through a difficult period lately and recently experienced a split in our membership. We are very sorry to inform you that we will not be able to fulfill our pledge to support your ministry this year….” What a sad letter, I thought. And I also thought, I wonder what the people who sent the letter would think if they knew all that I know about our own struggles and conflicts in Sweden. But it isn’t just Sweden - we had our struggles and conflicts in Michigan, too. I’ve been part of some really bad situations and know I’ve left some people hurt behind me, and I’ve seen other people I care about hurt deeply. I’ve seen my share of really lousy things happen to people, but I think they pale compared to the larger history of the church. I have seen people forced out of jobs they didn’t want to leave, but I’ve never seen anyone burned as a heretic.

So, I have been trying to get my mind around the church landscape in Sweden. Like every country, there have been a lot of church splits. There is of course the old State church, which is Lutheran, but there are divisions within it, and then all sorts of Mission and Free churches. And that’s just on the Protestant side. The Swedish government may have given up on the idea of fighting, but that hasn’t stopped Christians from doing it. And if you dig into the history and find why these different groups split, the answers often seem ridiculous these days. Sort of like knowing in West Michigan the Reformed and Christian Reformed split over things like whether or not to sing from the Psalter, have worship services in Dutch (what’s wrong with that, I do it every Sunday?), and allow membership in the Masonic Lodge. Those don’t seem like issues to split a denomination over in 2009. Is it just me or does it seem like so many disputes that were about a point of theology seem in retrospect just to be about the exercise of power?

Here are some other questions I am left with.

What do you think of a country that has more or less given up on the idea of being a part of a war?

What do you think the church would look like if we took that stance?

What is really worth dividing over?

What sort of witness to the world do we have when a country can live at peace for 200 years and we can’t seem to make it through a day in peace?

And finally, to quote Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

These aren't just rhetorical questions - if anyone outside my immediate family is reading this, I would love to know what you think. (And it's okay for members of my immediate family to respond, too.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Life imitates a not so good novel

I spent the past few days in Sweden and flew back to the Netherlands today. Before I left I grabbed a book someone had given me to read almost a year ago. If I were doing a book review I'd call it almost a good book, but not quite. It was about a Presidential election where one of the candidates was a caricature of Jerry Falwell. He had millions of fundamentalist followers. I don't like it when Christians are presented as unthinking, racist, rich, hate-filled idiots. Much of the book was about the back and forth between the various candidates on their faith views, and the sort of things the characters said were so unbelievable it was laughable. I won't bore you with more about the book, but one of the things I have been thinking about is how difficult it would be to answer belief and social issue questions on the spot. I'm no politician, that's for sure.

So, I landed at Schiphol airport, got my bag, and headed out to take the train back home when I was met by a film crew. All of a sudden I felt like the book was coming to life. A woman with a microphone asked me where I lived and I said "Dordrecht," and she looked disappointed until I added, "But I am from the United States" and she brightened up.

"Do you mind if we ask you some questions?" she asked.

"Well, what is this for?" I asked.

"A talk show from Schiphol airport," she said. I have never heard of a talk show from Schiphol airport, so I thought, "why not, this is probably some obscure thing shown in the airport lounges" and I figured she was going to ask me what an American was doing in the Netherlands or where I was flying from or something like that.

"Okay," I said.

The camera started rolling. This nice, sweet young woman looked at me and said, "Researchers today have concluded that homosexuality cannot be reversed by therapy. Would you please tell us your opinion about that?"

I felt like doing a Ralph Kramden and saying "ah-bah-dah-bah-dah-bah...." I have all sorts of mixed feelings about this issue. I looked down at my clothing and was relieved I wasn't wearing any logos - so I would be answering anonymously.

I don't remember exactly what I said, but more or less I tried to say that these findings didn't really surprise me, that I think some people are just born that way, but at the same time I have heard of other people that are homosexual who have had traumatic experiences that happened to them that may have caused them to become homosexual and I thought these people probably could be helped by therapy. I know I also said "I don't know" and "this is complicated" a lot. I think I sounded really stupid.

After a few minutes they let me go on my way. I turned a corner and there was another film crew standing there. I took a wide turn away from them. I'd had enough "Meet the Press" for the day.

Here's my question for those of you reading this -it was obvious to me they weren't going to interview me if I was Dutch, but when I turned out to be an American, they were interested. Why do you think that is so?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cliche Corner

If you ain't Dutch, you ain't much.