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.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ik Weet Het Niet

I got my haircut this morning. (In Journalism school at Michigan State I learned the importance of strong leads – first sentences that grab your attention and make you want to keep reading. This is not a strong lead. My favorite lead for a sports story was “Babe Herman has never doubled into a triple play, but he did triple into a double play today, which ought to count for something.” )

I’ve needed a haircut for a month or so. My hair was starting to curl over my ears, and before long I would have had sidelocks like an Orthodox Jew. All I needed was the hat. But I kept putting off getting my hair cut because it was something new that I would have to figure out. (By the way, I am getting my hair cut very short these days, and as I was sitting in the chair this morning I contemplated that over my lifetime my haircut has followed the Three Stooges: I started off as Moe, evolved into Larry, and now am Curly. Nyuk, yuk, yuk.)

“Ik weet het niet” means “I don’t know” and those words come out of my mouth more since we’ve moved than ever before. I didn’t know how to get my hair cut here before this morning. I still don’t know how much I weigh, how tall I am, what my shoe size is, what any of my other sizes are, how to get the cable company to understand what doesn’t work on my TV, and on and on. I just don’t know. I can’t tell you how many calls Gretchen and I have had to make to our Dutch friends that started, “We don’t know how to ….”

I was raised and educated to be the smartest guy in the room. I went to seminary where I studied Greek and Hebrew so that I could read things that no one else could. I have prided myself on being reasonably intelligent for a long time. And my grasp of useless trivia is especially good. I know that Babe Pinelli was the home plate umpire when Don Larsen threw his perfect game in the 1956 World Series, that Hannibal Hamlin from Maine was Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, and that John Ritter’s father sang the theme song to the movie “High Noon.”

But I live now in a place where none of that matters. What I don’t know is astounding. For beginners, I don't know the native tongue of 99% of the people I regularly encounter. And while I am grieving the loss of my intelligence, I am beginning to see that maybe this new posture of not knowing can be an advantage.

This weekend one of our new staff people asked me a question and I said, “I don’t know” and she said, “that’s what I like about you as our leader,” and I said, “you like the fact that your regional director is clueless?” and she laughed and said, “no, I like that you don’t pretend to know it all and try to control everyone and every situation. You give us the space to figure things out.” I took that as a compliment.

I read a book recently that was about the shift from modern to postmodern thought, and one of the points the author made is that while the modern world was all about intelligence, the postmodern world is all about creativity. Intelligence, he said, is mastery over a body of knowledge. Creativity is the ability to recognize the patterns emerging from an environment and respond appropriately.

Here’s an example. Imagine you are on a train in Europe and the train stops at a station and an announcement comes on in a language you don’t understand. Everyone gets off the train. What would you do? Get off the train, of course. Then what would you do? Follow the crowd, of course. The crowd all walks to a tram stop, gets on a tram, and takes that tram to the next station down the line, where they then get on another train bound for your original destination. This isn’t hypothetical, it happened to Gretchen and me a couple of weeks ago. We actually can understand some Dutch at this point, so when the announcement came on I said, “I think there is a problem with this train” and Gretchen said, “I thought they said something about strawberries.” Is the train broken or are they about to serve strawberries to every passenger? When in doubt, we step back and watch what others do. I have always been taught the opposite – to make things happen on my own, but now I am learning to recognize the patterns and trust the wisdom of others.

Which leaves me pondering many questions today.

The great cathedrals of Europe sit mostly empty on Sunday mornings. They have more visitors during the week from tourists wanting to see the art and architecture than pilgrims searching for God at worship these days. What might we conclude from that? People vote with their feet, the old saying goes, and the people have voted.

Is this a different way to think of creativity for you? I guess I always thought creativity was creation out of nothing, but I see this definition as creation based on what others are doing around you. As I reflect on that, it seems more probable than creation out of nothing.

Is it okay for you to say, “I don’t know”? Is it okay for a leader to say that?

What might it mean to trust the wisdom of others? Throw that into the European context for a moment – are you Americans aware of how this side of the world views you? One way to put it would be to say that Europeans generally don’t think Americans have the ability to trust in any wisdom other than their own.

What patterns do you see emerging around us in the postmodern world?

Here’s to creativity. The words of the now forgotten Five Man Electrical Band seem appropriate:

Signs, signs everywhere a sign
Can’t you read the signs?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Helsinki and Henri

It’s been a whirlwind week. Gretchen and I had the full Ryanair experience last Friday, flying from Eindhoven to Nykoping, Sweden. Ryanair is like nothing else in the world. You use it because it is ridiculously cheap, but cheapness costs something. In Ryanair’s case it costs a bit of your dignity. Everyone lines up because there are no assigned seats and I inevitably moo and baa in line. I can’t help it. Treat me like a farm animal and I feel compelled to respond in kind. And it costs time. Ryanair defines Nykoping as Stockholm, but grab a map and look - it is an hour and a half away from Stockholm. Skavsta airport in Nykoping is a classic Ryanair facility – some World War II relic that they have more or less resuscitated because they can fly in and out without paying big fees. As near as I could tell, the only other planes flying out from there were on an airline called “Wizz,” which was flying to Gdansk, and left me imagining conversations. “Sorry, Bob, I can’t join you for the meeting this afternoon, I’ve got the 4:15 Wizz to Gdansk.”

So we took a train to Eindhoven, a bus from Eindhoven Central Station to the airport, a plane to Sweden, and a car to Vallentuna, where we were staying. All of this so we could ride on a boat. Of course to get on the boat we took another bus, a train, and a subway. If only we’d managed to ride our bikes or found a rickshaw we would have covered about every form of transportation.

After a full day of meetings last Saturday (you can see my Swedish friend Daniel showed up for the first meeting wearing a tee shirt with my picture on it!), we got on a boat in Stockholm Sunday afternoon to sail across the Baltic Sea to Helsinki. The boat is sort of a cruise ship and sort of a ferry. The cabins are small, but at least you have beds, a shower and a toilet. The ship is filled with restaurants, bars, a huge store, video poker and there was even a “fun center” that featured five Swedes in long dresses and white leisure suits singing and dancing. ABBA lives on, my friends! No, it wasn’t the real ABBA, just a cheap Swedish imitation, but I did see that in a few weeks Gerry and the Pacemakers are playing on this boat. You have to be a real trivia freak like me to know Gerry and the Pacemakers. They didn’t quite make it as big as another band from Liverpool. These days Gerry and the rest of the band probably have pacemakers.

We took two young couples who serve on our staff in Sweden with us, along with their new babies. Gretchen got a bit of a “baby fix” and we all enjoyed our time together. We had seven hours in Helsinki, enough time to see some wonderful architecture and be able to say, “We’ve been to Finland!” Look again at the map you got out and you’ll see that if the captain made a wrong turn we easily could have wound up in Russia. I’ve put a couple of Helsinki photos above – I’m always interested in churches and a unique thing in Finland is they have both strong Lutheran and Russian Orthodox influences. What you see is the oldest wooden church in Helsinki, which is Lutheran, and also an impressive Russian Orthodox church, close to where our boat docked. And you can see we were very, very fortunate to be there on a beautiful fall day. We also visited a church literally blasted out of stone called Temppeliaukio, but I would have needed a helicopter to really capture that well on film.

We went on the trip to scout this out as a potential regional staff retreat location – my vision is to do a floating retreat someday. There are similar ships that sail from Stockholm to Riga and Tallinn, and who doesn’t want to go to Latvia or Estonia? I do.

We headed back home on Wednesday, with our Ryanair experience this time highlighted by two drunks in the row in front of us. Drunkenness is obnoxious and pitiful in any culture. At least these guys didn’t appear to be on the verge of vomiting, like the drunk sitting next to Ken Knipp and me on the Ryanair flight we took together last April. Well, technically the drunk guy wasn’t sitting next to me. I made sure Ken was next to him and I sat coiled, prepared to leap out into the aisle regardless of the seat belt sign. Ken was ready to take one for the team if necessary. I was ready to save myself. Ken and I have had some great adventures together over the years, like the now legendary day he invited me to go check out a resort in Southwest Michigan with him for a possible family retreat. The place turned out to be “men only” and we were mistaken for a couple looking to go on vacation. That was a bit awkward.

Anyway, Gretchen and I arrived home Wednesday evening and within a couple of hours welcomed two Norwegians who were coming to town for our training group meeting this weekend. In addition to the Norwegians, we had three folks from Spain, one from France and one from Portugal join us. These folks are our first and second year staff, the hope of our future, and I loved our time together. I thought it was time well spent, but I don’t exactly have the most objective point of view about the whole thing. There is a certain ego boost involved in having people fly in from all over the continent to listen to you drone on for a few days.

We spent time with a great Henri Nouwen book called, “In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership,” and I think I’ve probably read this short gem ten or fifteen times. Let me try to sum up the three things that I tried to teach our new staff from the Nouwen book this weekend.

1. That even though we feel the temptation and expectation from the world around us to be relevant and successful, to accomplish or do something; the simple question Jesus asks us is not “what are you doing for me?” but “do you love me?” Nouwen says it like this: The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus? Perhaps another way of asking the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God? In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, that reaches out and wants to heal.

2. That even though our world and Western culture especially values individualism and the self-made hero, ministry is a communal and mutual experience. There are great dangers when we allow ourselves to be isolated and alone. Another way to say this is “you are as sick as your secrets,” and only by finding safe places for confession in community can the dark forces that would undo us be brought to light and seen for what they really are.

3. That the greatest mystery of Christian leadership is found in following the example of Jesus Christ, who did not cling to his divine power but, as the book of Philippians says, “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” The model we follow for Christian leadership is Servant Leadership. The temptation we face is the temptation to power. Nouwen says: What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life…I am not speaking about a psychologically weak leadership in which the Christian leader is simply the passive victim of the manipulations of his milieu. No, I am speaking of a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love. It is a true spiritual leadership.

Our Norwegians and Spaniards and all the rest have headed home now, and Gretchen and I are enjoying a relaxed Sunday afternoon. It’s been a good week.